Transportation woes due to conflicting interests: transit or roads?

There are two peculiarities that we have here in the Lower Mainland that make transportation planning hereabouts a tad more “interesting” than most places. It also increases the danger that a transportation project is not as successful as it could be.

TransLink’s Double-Agenda
In addition to running our local public transport system, TransLink was given another task. The provincial government transferred the responsibility for the regional road network and some major bridges to TransLink. This has created an agency that is tasked to accomplish two goals. It has to plan, build and run the public transportation infrastructure, and it has to plan, build and maintain roadways.

To me, that seems like a very unusual set of roles to be combined under one umbrella. It creates a huge conflict of interest within the organization. On the one hand, they have to promote sustainable means of transportation and try to get people out of their cars, but on the other hand, they need to improve and extend the road infrastructure. These two things don’t go hand-in-hand.

In order to advocate transit, TransLink has to provide incentives for people to not get into their vehicles. This means spending money on improving public transport, advocating a change in attitude, and designing roadways in a fashion that matches these goals (bus lanes, bike lanes, priority signalling, light rail in the centre median, etc.). Improving transit does not usually involve building more and wider roads. However, in order to facilitate goods movement by trucks, they do have to do just that. These roads may be meant primarily for trucks, but will be inviting for anybody to use.

So, to me, the conflict of interest within TransLink is very much a reality. Which goal takes precedence? Transit or roads? An agency shouldn’t have to advocate for public transportation and be mandated to build more roads.

Divided Road Responsibilities
While, on the one hand, public transportation and (some) road responsibility were lumped into one and the same organization, responsibilities for BC’s road network as a whole is divided up between three entities.

  • Municipalities look after local roads.
  • TransLink looks after regional roads in the Lower Mainland.
  • The province looks after the inter-regional road network (although this one doesn’t seem as clear cut; not all provincial roads leave the region).

It leads to increased planning complexities when a particular road project involves more than one agency. Communicating between several levels of government requires constant, conscious effort. If the parties involved don’t keep up that effort, issues will fall through the cracks.

Even worse, each agency might just be looking after its own agenda. They are perpetually strapped for cash. They have limited resources. The funds they do have may have a time-limit attached to them. (For instance, says the federal government, “If you don’t use the money by date XYZ, we’ll re-allocate it elsewhere.”) Faced with the danger that nothing at all gets accomplished, the agency may assume a “let’s get done what we can” approach, obviously focusing on solving their own problem(s) first. How it impacts other agencies or what happens when traffic leaves the original agency’s jurisdiction takes the back seat.

Examples from New Westminster
It doesn’t take much effort to come up with road improvement projects that affect New Westminster. Here are three. One was a planned project that was put on hold, one is being planned right now, and one was actually built. They all seem to show quite clearly what happens when agencies seem to focus mainly on their own turf. These examples are probably well known to anybody living in or travelling through New Westminster.

The UBE
The United Boulevard Extension was one example where TransLink was pushing its agenda (to move goods) as far as their responsibility stretched: to New West’s city limits. What was going to happen to traffic once it hit New West was none of their concern. There was some dubious talk about a North Fraser Perimeter Road at some point in the future, but it was neither clear how the NFPR would run through New West and what its impact would be, nor when it was going to be built. No funding had been secured. So, it was just the UBE that Translink wanted to build. Their main incentive to build it at that time? The federal government was waving $60 million for improved goods transportation infrastructure in front of their noses.

It was only due to massive opposition from New Westminster residents and city council that the project was put on hold. For now.

The Pattullo Bridge
TransLink have a clear and relatively urgent responsibility. They own the Pattullo Bridge. It is not up to current safety standards. Therefore, they must take care of it one way or another. Not to do that would mean they are not doing their job, and it would make them liable should something happen. So far, so good. What’s not good is the way TransLink is looking at the problem. They seem to have been asking themselves:

  • What do we do about the bridge?
  • What’s the best and most economical way for us to do it?
  • Which solution will get us the closest to our “goods movement” goal?

So, they picked the variant that makes the most sense to them. A six lane bridge. They made this choice before much public input was gathered. The impact that bridge will create on either side is not their main concern. The new bridge solves their problem: the aging structure is gone, the liability problem averted. The two additional lanes are an added bonus at not too much extra cost. Their part of the road infrastructure will now allow for better goods movement. — Two goals met with one project! What more can you want as an organization?

Again, it is strong community support that will hopefully bring about some change. At least, for the first time during the Pattullo replacement process, TransLink finally seems to be listening to citizens’ concerns. It’s far from over, but we seem to be on the right track to see the bigger picture.

The Queensborough Bridge
This project completed about four years ago. The Queensborough Bridge (along with highways 91A and 91) are provincial roads. So, this example doesn’t involve Translink, but it shows the province used an approach reminiscent of TransLink’s. — And it shows what happens when a project using this approach is actually implemented.

The province wanted to improve vehicle movement across the Fraser River via the Alex Fraser and the Queensborough Bridges. So, they decided to remove two bottlenecks. They upgraded the Howes Street intersection in Queensborough and re-configured the north end of Queensborough Bridge and surrounding intersections to make traffic there flow more smoothly (or so they thought).

What they did not think too much about was what would happen once traffic left the road that’s under their ownership or how traffic would get from local roads to their improved roadway. These problems were not theirs to solve. They had their agenda (get traffic across the Fraser) and that was it. If traffic didn’t actually flow better in the real world, it wasn’t their roads holding things up. They’d done their share. — Sound familiar?

The result of this thinking we can all see on a daily basis:

  • 20th Street southbound is a big, nasty mess on most day, sometimes even on weekends now; it routinely backs up to 8th Avenue, often further.
  • Stewardson westbound is a disaster every weekday morning with trucks and cars lined up past 3rd Avenue on many days.
  • Even on the Queensborough side traffic routinely clogs Ewen Avenue, Howes Street and roads nearby, as well as the bridge onramp and the highway itself.

Was the goal of improved traffic flow really accomplished?

So, do we actually know the province didn’t really care too much about how traffic would get to or from Queensborough Bridge or is the above scenario just conjecture based on observation? Yes, we kind of do know. One day, a couple of years ago, I spoke to the New Westminster police department about the bridge and the traffic mess surrounding it. They said to me, “We know. The province designed it. They didn’t really consult with the city. Now, we have to deal with it.” Point in case.

Personally, I don’t know how the current situation compares to the time before the “improvement project” (I didn’t live in New West then), but I am having a hard time picturing the current situation as “being better”.

Conclusion
In order to not keep falling into the same trap with every new road project, it may be time to add another topic to the public discussion, a topic more general, beyond any single transportation project.

It would seem beneficial to re-visit how roadways and transit, over all, are being managed in the Lower Mainland and in the province.

Having responsibilities for roads spread across three different levels of government that are clearly having difficulties working together effectively, on one hand, and, on the other, combining public transit and road infrastructure responsibility in a single agency does not seem like a wise choice. It certainly doesn’t seem to be working all that well.

Family-friendly Pattullo rally planned at TransLink open house June 23

Pattullo rally poster
Pattullo rally poster

Opinion polling in New Westminster is pretty clear: New Westminster does not want a six-lane replacement to the Pattullo Bridge. TransLink’s public consultation in our community, however, has assumed six lanes as a given. Clearly, New West and TransLink are not seeing eye to eye.

New Westminsterites concerned about air quality, livability, pedestrian safety and environmental impacts of increasing traffic through our already congested city have organized a rally for the whole family in response to TransLink’s Pattullo Bridge Open House at Sapperton Pensioner’s Hall this Saturday, June 23. Supporters include New Westminster school trustees Jonina Campbell and David Phelan, the Surrey Citizens Transportation Initiative and New Westminster Environmental Partners.

Rally organizers believe TransLink’s public consultation process was unfair and that building a bigger Pattullo goes against TransLink’s own transportation strategy, which centres on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and encouraging development of communities designed for transit, cycling and walking. In previous open houses, TransLink has asked for public input on specific questions about planning details related to location and connections for a six-lane bridge, not whether a six-lane bridge is the right solution for our communities.

In the invitation to the event, organizers invite parents to bring their kids, bicycles and bubble-blowers, and participants are asked to keep messages “constructive, welcoming and focused on the issues.” Signs prepared for the event will include slogans like, “No 6-Lane Bridge,” to specifically reference TransLink’s current plans and “Give Surrey Transit Now!,” which is in keeping with their Transport 2040 Goals. Others will include: “Stop Driving Climate Change,” “A Good Planet is Hard to Find,” “Less Traffic=Safer Streets,” “TransLink: Put Our $ Where Our Public Transit Should Be,” “Plan Past Peak Oil: It’s Time to Think outside the Barrel” “Think Lions Gate”, “TransLink: We Need to Talk!” and “Stop Pushing Car Dependency.”

The rally will begin in Sapperton Park, rain or shine, at 9:30am to walk to the TransLink open house together with signs and letters to the TransLink Board. There will also be activities for children during the brief event.

Is TransLink vision too narrow for new Pattullo Bridge?

Pattullo Bridge. Photo: Pat Johnstone
Pattullo Bridge. Photo: Pat Johnstone

TransLink has proposed replacing the 75-year-old Pattullo Bridge with one designed to last 100 years. Unfortunately, after attending their open house in New Westminster last Feb, I walked away feeling that they had missed a crucial opportunity.

First, I did not see how TransLink’s own established 2040 vision to reduce emissions fits into their plans for an expanded Pattullo bridge. Their diagrams excluded any noticeable collaboration with other planners about provincial, municipal and federal roads. Also, I did not see any evidence that TransLink planners were encouraged to investigate other ways of efficiently and affordably moving people and goods that are already in use or being developed around the world. It seems by focusing on bridge placement, they failed to create a broad and visionary linked transportation network for the entire region—that includes not just planning with municipalities and the province, but also the ports and railroads about the important challenges we face in evolving our transportation and energy systems.

When I asked a TransLink planner if the models for future traffic volumes included the increasing costs of oil and gas as a factor, he regretted that they had not.

I understand that the end of cheap petroleum can change our economy. If we do not start to transition soon, even a temporary economic downturn can affect tax revenues available for large projects. I believe that no time is more important than now for clarity, collaboration and constant citizen participation. So before assigning today’s precious tax dollars to another expensive new bridge across the Fraser River, there is an urgency to get it right. And that got me wondering…

…how can we think outside the box that can constrain consultants and civil servants who are, without a doubt, restricted by a particular mandate that has been set out for them?

When thinking about transportation, we all need to develop our visionary capacity so that every project goes beyond short-term local issues. We have to learn to be visionaries and remember that citizens’ ideas about transportation are crucial.

Questions for us:

1.) During your travels, what kinds of low-emission transportation, for people or goods, have you seen that could be considered for the Vancouver region?

2.) When a lot of us are over 70 years old, what kind of transportation do you think we can rely upon for our daily needs?

Questions for planners:

3) When the Port Mann Bridge becomes tolled and cars and trucks divert to the un-tolled Pattullo Bridge, what are the projected impacts of pollution, traffic congestion, and bridge safety?

4) If tolling has undermined the reasoning behind expanding the Port Mann Bridge, is focusing on building bigger bridges going to solve our transportation issues with our best future in mind?

5) What ideas can be put into place, now and into the future, to avoid increased traffic flow through New Westminster’s 3 main corridors—McBride to 10th Ave., Royal Ave. to Stewardson Way, and East Columbia to Brunette?

6) As fuel prices continue to rise, what effect will that factor have on car and truck use on the Pattullo Bridge?

7) Since types of transportation and location of corridors determine the location of new development, what network is envisioned for guiding density for the next 100 years?

8) How can we protect our current green zones (parks, ecological reserves, forests, bog lands, tree farms, Agricultural Land Reserve and non-ALR agricultural use, etc.) as we accommodate changes over the next 100 years?

9) How does our region need to plan for the projected impact of Climate Change?

When it comes to the Pattullo Bridge, I am concerned that TransLink’s vision is too narrow. After all, road designers and bridge builders, when asked to address a problem, will always try to solve it by designing more roads and building more bridges. The result is that we, the users and funders, will not get what we need for our rapidly changing future.

Fortunately, the City wants the people of New Westminster to have a stronger voice in the TransLink bridge discussions, and you can help them have it by attending New Westminster’s open houses on The Master Transportation Plan on Thurs, May 3 at Century House from 2-4pm and the Justice Institute from 6-9pm. Even if you don’t have an opinion yet, your presence is important to inspire discussion in the region and build our shared vision.

The candidates weigh in: what to do about the Pattullo?

The Pattullo Bridge. Photo: Gord McKenna
The Pattullo Bridge. Photo: Gord McKenna

This is the third in a series of articles sharing highlights from NWEP’s mayor and council candidates questionnaire on environmental issues. The first article in the series shared the mayoral candidates’ takes on “sustainability” in New West, and the second dealt with traffic. The full questionnaire and all candidate responses are on NWEP’s website.

While we shared the candidates’ opinions on traffic issues in our last post in this series, it’s worth taking a little more time to discuss one issue in particular that could have a profound impact on traffic flow in New Westminster: the proposed replacement of the Pattullo Bridge. Unless otherwise indicated, responses are from council candidates.

NWEP asked the candidates: TransLink continues to mull a replacement for the Pattullo Bridge. Would you rather see the bridge repaired, replaced with a 4-lane structure, or replaced with a larger structure? Would you support tolling the bridge to pay for its replacement? If you don’t support replacement, would you support tolling the existing bridge?

Here’s what they said:

Repair the bridge

Susan Wandell
If the bridge is not structurally sound, it should be replaced. If it is safe, it should be changed to a 3 lane bridge operating like the Lions Gate Bridge alternating two lanes direction during rush hours.

Replace the bridge with a 4-lane structure

Vance McFadyen – Mayoral Candidate
Considering the Pattullo Bridge was opened in 1939 (I believe), the considerable amount of money already spent on maintenance/repair and most importantly the many vehicular deaths caused primarily by design and congestion, I would prefer to see it replaced with a well designed 4 lane bridge and tolled.

François Nantel – Mayoral Candidate
They should build a new 4-lane bridge, which would be one way up to McBride, and keep the old one as one way down to King George. All money should come from the Bank of Canada, just printed new money (electronically, like the charter banks do), and build the bridge as an asset of corresponding value, creating no inflation. Same thing should have been done for all capital expenditures. Unfortunately, we have been hoodwinked. In case of an earthquake, may be 1 bridge would do better than the other, keeping a critical link between the shores of the Fraser

Jonathan Cote
If Translink moves ahead with the replacement of the Pattullo Bridge, I would only support a 4 lane structure. New Westminster’s road network is operating near capacity and cannot handle increased traffic. The expansion of the Pattullo Bridge would only induce more traffic into our community and local neighbourhoods.

Vladimir Krasnogor
Until we have a complete picture of costs and other details, replacing with 4-lane seems the most practical solution. I am well aware that members of the community prefer a larger structure, and some people prefer no bridge at all.

Betty McIntosh
A new 4 lane with proper widths would give as much capacity as New Westminster could accomodate with continued tolls

Replace the bridge with a larger structure

Gerry Liu
The issues of the Pattullo Bridge is to replace with a larger structure, and with the bridge construction helped with Federal Funding.

Supports tolls

Vance McFadyen – Mayoral Candidate
I would prefer to see it replaced with a well designed 4 lane bridge and tolled. I cannot honestly comment on tolling the existing bridge unless it is to build funds for the new bridge but I fear it may take too long to accomplish that goal.

Jonathan Cote
Although I have some concerns about the un-coordinated road pricing system that exists in Metro Vancouver, I think it is reasonable that Translink pursue this as an option to finance this project.

Jaimie McEvoy
If other bridges are tolled and a new Pattullo was not, that would encourage more vehicles into New Westminster. I would like to see tolling, but with a low toll or none at all for local residents, promoting the idea of a local bridge for local traffic, which is only one-third of the bridge’s actual total now.

As a SkyTrain rider and transit user myself, it occurs to me that I do pay a toll every time I use public transit. SkyTrain and buses are just as much a part of the transit system our taxes paid for as roads, yet there is a specific toll each and every time. This disincentive to use transit should be eliminated. Public transit is just a way of getting around, just like roads and bridges, and should be free and equally paid for through our taxes.

Betty McIntosh
I think the present bridge should be tolled now to gather funds for a replacement bridge of 4 lanes in the future.

Bob Osterman
We MUST have the Patullo tolled,if we do not, we will become the Fraser crossing of choice and we will be inundated with even yet more traffic.

Susan Wandell
Tolls are a fair way of paying for infrastructure. Tolls are used throughout the Maritimes and are accepted. Once the Gateway project is completed and a toll in place on the Port Mann Bridge, the Pattullo Bridge will have to be tolled in order to protect the liveability of our neighbourhoods from the increase in traffic.

Lorrie Williams
If tolls go up on the Port Mann then they have to go up on the Pattullo.

Opposes tolls

John Ashdown
With the gas and associated government taxes and fees now levied against motorists I am against tolls. The gas tax was brought in decades ago specifically to cover expense of roads and bridges and they continue to rise. Use that tax for it’s intended use. TransLink being constantly in our pockets to cover costs is double dipping as are the board of directors with their TransLink and Mayor’s Salaries.

Other answers

James Crosty – Mayoral Candidate
I support the question going to the public as a referendum after ensuring that all options are presented to the people of New Westminster.

Wayne Wright – Mayoral Candidate
The Pattullo bridge must be replaced and consultation will determine the optimum size. Tolling and road pricing is on the agenda with GVRD and the Province.

John Ashdown
About all you can do with Pattullo bridge to maintain it is, Paint and Patch. Increasing lanes? Not likely by design. It is an old bridge and deserves a place in New West’s history. I am in favour of a new Bridge off United in Coquitlam where it can connect via King Edward to Lougheed and the Stormont connector. Why not build a new bridge and retain the Pattullo for pedestrians, cyclists, scooters and “0” emission electric vehicles.

Jaimie McEvoy
Patullo Bridge as it currently exists is fundamentally unsafe. It does not adequately accommodate cyclists and pedestrians. It was closed for a time because part of it is actually made of wood and it caught fire.

And when it was closed, life continued. The traffic disaster that resulted adjusted after a couple of days.

In my view, it never made a lot of sense to connect a 1930s bridge to a residential street system initially designed for the horse and buggy. It makes less sense to add two more lanes of traffic to a small city where people have to drive through those residential areas before connecting with major roadways.
Two-thirds of the bridge’s traffic is not local at all to New Westminster or North Surrey, but is just passing through to somewhere else. A new Pattullo Bridge could route through North Surrey, and connect with Highway 1 and North Road in Coquitlam. It’s an only an idea, but an idea worth considering.

Any decision on the bridge should not occur before complete environmental and impact assessments on the options, and fair consideration of all of the options.

David Noshad
Issues like this require extensive research and analyzing all the pros and cons. I will base my decision on the best interest of the city, environment and our citizens’ preference.

Gavin Palmer
We need to work with TransLink in dealing with the Pattullo Bridge. It has to be done within the constraints of public funding and whether it is repaired, refurbished or replaced will depend on the overall plan to move traffic through the region. New Westminster is not the dumping ground for the region’s traffic issues and we need to garner better respect from our neighbors. We are the keystone to the region and we deserve better treatment from our regional government not the current lip service our current regime accepts from this body.

Chuck Puchmayr
There is a group called Get Moving BC, which had a report produced by a Voice New Westminster founding director (see Kent Spencer, The Province Published: Monday, September 15, 2008) recommending another 8 lanes of traffic into New Westminster by replacing the Pattullo bridge with an 8 lane structure at the foot of King George. I do not support an 8 lane Pattullo replacement. We can’t keep dumping the regions traffic through our city. When an 8 lane bridge becomes gridlocked, and it will, our neighbourhoods will suffer total gridlock and emergency vehicle response times will become critical.

Lorrie Williams
I don’t know enough about bridges to know if it should be replaced or repaired or expanded.

Remembering New Westminster’s ‘Pay-a-Toll-o’ Bridge

This is a guest post from Ken Wilkinson of the Friends of New Westminster Museum & Archives Society. Ken is a fifth generation New Westminster resident, whose family arrived in 1859 and have enjoyed the city ever since. He helps People with Disabilities enjoy their lives with direct support and as a writer and designer of education and employment programs. He also enjoys helping others throughout the community. He is a founding member of the newly established Friends of the New Westminster Museum and Archives Society (FNWMA), which is responsible for helping more people learn about the unique and vibrant history of our community and our province. He wants to find out what people know, want to learn and want to help, so wants peoples’ input. Until the FNWMA Society has a website, you can contact him at kenw10 (at) telus.net.

Cars on the narrow deck of the New Westminster bridge while the Patullo Bridge was built. Photo: New Westminster Museum & Archives.
cars on the narrow deck of the New Westminster bridge while the Patullo Bridge was built (IHP7826-004)

Translink recently announced a new bridge will be built in the next 5 years between New Westminster and Surrey, the third bridge across in the past 106 years.

The first “New Westminster Bridge” was opened by Premier Richard McBride on July 23, 1904. It was the first bridge across the Lower Fraser River, mainly for rail traffic but had a second, wood-planked deck above (mainly for horses and carts at the time) that shook horribly when trains passed underneath. It allowed for trains to link from the U.S. to Vancouver, and in 1911 created a great opportunity for B.C. Electric’s Interurban tram line to move people and freight from Chilliwack to Vancouver. This led to great economic growth for many years.

But the New Westminster Bridge was very inefficient for families who, by the 1930s, wanted to travel to the U.S. and up the Fraser Valley on their own schedule in cars. Premier T.D. “Duff” Patullo pushed hard for the bridge to be built by the province in New Westminster to create jobs during the depression and to stimulate growth.

The Patullo Bridge was built tall so that large ships could pass under to go to mills up the river. The New Westminster bridge swung open for ships to pass. Photo: New Westminster Museum & Archives.
The Patullo Bridge was built tall so that large ships could pass under to go to mills up the river. The New Westminster bridge swung open for ships to pass. (IHP7152)

The very modern and expensive ($4 million) bridge was opened on November 15, 1937 and named after the man who proudly spearheaded the project. Tolls were required for 15 years to pay for it, so it was often called the “Pay-a-Toll-o” bridge by unhappy New Westminster residents. It allowed for construction of the Pacific Highway to Blaine and helped encourage growth in Surrey and New Westminster.

73 years later the bridge is aging and has narrow lanes for trucks and cars, so soon it will be replaced by the 3rd road bridge, just upstream of the bridges that have survived well for the past 106 years.

Pattullo Bridge Repaving Project Means Closures

Pattullo Bridge
Image by janusz l via Flickr

New Westminster Residents affected by the closure of the Pattullo Bridge last January will no doubt know what is coming as Translink closed the bridge again this season for a significant overhaul of the paved surfaces. Depending on where in the city you reside, festering traffic jams or placid car free streets resulted from the last bridge shut down, caused by a fire set by a transient, that spread to a wooden flex-brace structure. Areas around 20th st. and Queensborough had a nightmare on their hands while the downtown, uptown and parts of Sapperton found a traffic holiday in effect.

This time, it is far less dramatic and the closures are scheduled to allow daytime traffic a route across the Fraser River. The bridge will be closed from May 31 from 8 p.m.  Fridays through 5 a.m.  on Mondays and after the  work week evening rush from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. While the Pattullo typically sees 80,000 commuters each day, the closures are designed to minimize the impact. No doubt Translink planners have learned from the chaos that resulted from the last event.

On a side note, I have heard the analogy, particularly from BC Green Candidate and NWEP leader Matthew Laird (who I respect) that traffic, like gas, expands to meet the vacuum. I think this is true but the analogy fails. Gas expands to meet a vacuum by becoming much less dense. If there is more space, the congestion is eliminated. In the case of a failed river crossing, the traffic volume must contract to meet the reduced space. This results in congestion, friction and a real city planning problem. I am one of those that reject the notion that building more roads leads to more cars. Zoning more bedrooms in areas with no transit coverage leads to more cars. More or better roads just leads to a given number of cars spending less time in traffic.

So, that aside, the reason for the bridge repair is a complete replacement of the paved bridge deck. A typical resurfacing can not take place as the last work done in 1980 included asbestos and now the whole depth of asphalt must be removed and replaced. Lets hope that while the workers are digging through the pavement mid-span they don’t come across a forgotten cemetery

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