Monday, June 10, 2013

New Pattullo Consultations

Last week, I attended the first of several small-group consultation sessions and open houses that Translink is putting on to gather public input on the Pattullo Bridge replacement/refurb project.

First of all, whatever else you might think about the process or the ideas presented, these sessions prove that Translink is listening to us (the public). New Westminster council and citizens were pretty united in their message regarding the planning process last year: none of the options presented by Translink were acceptable to the community. And Translink has listened. This is a good thing (as that lady who went to jail for insider trading used to say), and not something one might expect from, say, PortMetroVan, or even BC's own Ministry of Transportation.

So, if you go to one of the sessions (and I highly, highly recommend that you do) please be sure to acknowledge this fact. Thank Translink for listening. I did! And I will repeat that message on my feedback form.

At the session, 25 options (yes!! Twenty five!) for the bridge were presented and evaluated on their performance on 8 goals. These goals were agreed upon by the City of New Westminster, the City of Surrey, and Translink. There is a lot of information in this booklet about these various options and I encourage you to study them carefully. You will see that most of them have been "de-recommended" and the most important part of the process right now is for you to voice your opinion on all the options. If there is an option you particularly like, that is not currently up for further consideration, now's the time to speak up!

Anyways, here are my thoughts...
  1. First and foremost, I think one big goal is missing from the list, and that is: no additional - and preferably less -  though-going traffic from New West streets. There are currently on the order of 450,000 vehicles driving through our City daily, and the majority of the 70,000 vehicles per day using the Pattullo are not bound for any New Westminster destination. Any new bridge option needs to be evaluated based on how much SOV and truck traffic it removes from our City streets. Now, if you read goal #4, it kinda sorta maybe covers traffic in New West with weasily terms like liveability, but in my opinion the number of cars and trucks buzzing through town is the One Biggest Concern that New West has about any eventual Pattullo project. Anything that increases traffic on our already packed streets is not going to be a winner for us. So it should be on the list as a separate and explicit goal - I repeat: no additional - and preferably less - though-going traffic from New West streets.
  2. The budget for the bridge appears based on the assumption that 70,000 vehicle trips are both sustainable and required. Translink seems to have a provisional budget of $1-1.5 billion in mind. This number is what you get when you charge a toll of $3 (Port Mann toll) for 20 years to each of those 70,000 cars moving across that bridge. I happen to disagree with this assumption: 70,000 vehicles through New West is neither desirable nor sustainable. The lower-capacity bridge options have been discounted because they do not provide for 70,000 cars/day. I disagree with this.
  3. As a corollary to point 2 above, the thinking appears to be that if you make the structure bigger, you can attract more traffic, and generate more $. OK, now this is really not what we want. Unless the roads in New West (Royal, McBride, Brunette, Stewardson) magically expand, this is a recipe for even more gridlock. There is absolutely no reason why a 5 or 6 lane replacement is a good idea. Even a new 4-laner will likely mean more traffic in New West.
  4. The point of infrastructure is not that it should pay for itself. Infrastructure is built to shape the behaviour of citizens and to guide the growth of cities. You build the future you want. So ask yourself: what future do you want? What is best for your kids? What is most sustainable? Personally, I think it's a pretty safe bet that 75 years from now (when the New Pattullo will still be standing) there will be a lot fewer single-occupancy cars on the road. Oil isn't getting cheaper or more plentiful. There is not enough electricity in BC for everyone to simply switch to an electric car. The future is unlikely to resemble "today, only bigger", so I don't believe for a minute that a bigger population "requires" more road capacity - the life experiences of folks from the 50's notwithstanding. In fact Translink's goals 1, 2 and 3 are pretty explicitly aligned with reducing vehicle capacity.
  5. One billion is a very low figure for a new bridge. Two billion is probably closer to what the budge for a new structure should be -  it's a price the Province seems happy to cough up for its own pet projects: for reference, the construction cost of the Port Mann and affiliated highway is 2.5 billion, and this bridge carries about 100,000 vehicles/day... or, the Massey Tunnel with current traffic counts of  80,000 vehicles/day, price tag for new unknown as of yet, but I'm guessing well into the billions as well. 
  6. Do not labour under the illusion that tolls will ever pay for a new structure. In BC, no toll ever has. The Coquihalla toll eventually paid for the construction of the highway (after 20 years, when it was scrapped) but was never sufficient to pay for the ongoing maintenance (that was up to the taxpayer). The toll on the Port Mann will never, ever pay for this bridge. This is why there is actually no private partner - the Province (ie. the taxpayer) is on the hook for the full cost of this bridge, forever. Similarly, the Golden Ears bridge tolls will not pay for the cost of this bridge. And I suspect that tolls on any new Massey Tunnel will also simply go to offset the total cost, but that the taxpayer will be on the hook for a substantial portion (growing, as tolls start to divert traffic away from the tolled infrastructure and onto "free" alternatives thanks to the Province's lack of any coherent tolling strategy). So it is a bad idea to base your budget on the idea of "user fees". Not that TransLink has any choice, of course, it's the Province's favourite whipping boy.
  7. The Pattullo provides a connection for "local" people to get between Surrey and New West, and one of the stated goals (#5 - hidden in the local community plans, apparently) is that this needs to be preserved. OK fine, but I strongly suspect that the number of trips that start or end in New Westminster is a tiny fraction of the 70,000 bridge crossings. Let's face it: New Westminster is not a big driving destination. It is a speed bump along the way that most commuters wish was paved over.  If you really want to come downtown, take the SkyTrain (in fact: most of the new buildings coming to New West are on SkyTrain and are marketed as being so). So the right solution is: reduce the bridge capacity so it's really only attractive to local travellers, and provide the car-commuters and trucks with an alternative that leads straight to HWY1. Point of fact: an alternative route already exists: it's the new Port Mann, the widest bridge in the world. Remind me again: why do we need a bigger Pattullo?
  8. The length of a bridge is not a reason why people don't bike or walk on it. The two biggest reasons why you have no pedestrians or cyclists on the Pattullo are that: a) it is a horrible user experience, and b) there's nothing on the Surrey side to walk to. The latter is changing fast as Surrey densifies. So fix the former and you will see mode shift. Guaranteed. I can imagine a reborn Whalley with a lovely waterfront and a bike/ped/park link along the Pattullo...prime real estate there...
My overwhelming priority is to reduce traffic through New Westminster. It makes sense to me to reduce the Pattullo's capacity, because this traffic dumps right into downtown, into residential areas.  The goal cannot be to reduce congestion, this is impossible. You cannot fix it by building a bigger bridge (you'll just wind up with a bigger parking lot). Congestion serves as an incentive to get people out of their SOV's and onto transit - as long as that is available. And of course, along this route, there is excellent service: the best. Skytrain. The issue is the bus connections at the Surrey end: let's fix that instead!

If most vehicles are bound for Coquitlam and points east, direct a bridge there.  In fact, there is already an excellent river crossing, brand new, that leads right to the highway, it's called the Port Mann. It can serve trucks from the SFPR as well as Surrey commuters. It may be a little more out of the way, and it isn't free....but why should New Westminster, the oldest community in the Province, take it in the neck so that drivers can have a "short cut"?