Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

While the product is right, we’re still not sure about the price.

with 7 comments

That’s the Sun’s editorial view of the Port Mann bridge project. It pretty much reflects the attitude espoused by its commentator Vaughan Palmer yesterday. And it is quite wrong.

The product is a freeway expansion  from the Vancouver boundary to eastern edge of Langley that now is to include a 10 lane new bridge across the Fraser, which may or may not one day accommodate light rail. There is, of course, no plan to actually build the light rail line that would be needed on each side but there is a promise of Rapid Bus to Langley. I imagine that would terminate at Braid SkyTrain. The bridge is also supposed to include two lanes (one each way) for local traffic between Surrey and Coquitlam which at least recognises that much of the traffic on the bridge now is short distance.

Freeway expansions induce traffic. There is not a city anywhere that has managed to cure traffic congestion by building more freeway. Gordon Price long ago issued a challenge to freeway supporters to name one – just one – city where this has worked. The silence has been deafening.

There is a short period of adjustment as drivers assess the new opportunities available to them but very quickly more – and longer – trips are being made and congestion returns. There seems to be an equilibrium level of traffic delay. Road user charges are the only method that shifts this equilibrium point, which is why toll roads that work out their pricing properly can provide higher levels of service for a price. The bridge of course will be tolled – but only until the the $3.3 bn is paid off. And in order to satisfy that private sector partners it will be necessary to set prices in a way that maiximises revenue. That means the amount of traffic control will be less than it might be if other policy concerns were in play. And, of course, there will be no tolls on the rest of the widened freeway.

The road networks that connect to this new freeway will see a great deal more traffic. Municipalities will either have to come up with traffic management  plans to deal with this – or just decide which roads will see the longest line ups. You cannot solve congestion by road building but you can decide where to put the storage capacity. Many people who currently support this project will, soon after it opens, begin to wonder where all this new traffic on their street came from.

The reason this is a bad project is that it widens both the freeway and the bridge at the same time. Instead of the current bottle neck, we will have a bigger bottle – with a proportionately similar neck. If reducing traffic congestion was the real objective then just adding more bridge lanes but leaving the approaches alone would move the congestion off the freeway. And from a road safety point of view that might not be a bad thing – as freeways are supposed to keep moving and vehicles coming up rapidly to stationary traffic are a real hazard. But the plan is to make sure that there is going to be a lot more driving – because Mr Falcon and Mr Campbell are really determined that their friends the property developers will do well out of changing land use along the freeway. Lots of new development – all of it car oriented – is going to occur to take advantage of the new accessibility the freeway expansion creates. This by the way is in addition to the traffic induced onto the freeway by existing car owners.

Mr Falcon’s argument that development occurs anyway is beside the point. It is the type of development that must be of concern. Because if you do not have transit you cannot expect transit oriented development. And that has always been what this region needed, but only saw to a very limited extent in the few places favoured with transit investment. And hardly any of that (except Whalley) was south of the Fraser. Doing the same thing and expecting a different outcome is a definition of madness.

There are alternatives but they have never been seriously considered. Translink could be running buses across the bridge now between Surrey Central, Guidlford and Coquitlam. All they need is a short queue jumper to get onto the bridge. Just like the one being built now on the Highway #99 hard shoulder in Richmond. Indeed just such a bus service was in Translink’s plans but Falcon had it killed. A region wide tolling strategy would also work to both reduce traffic and provide funding for more transit. Not popular of course but the places that have adopted such strategies show that they can work if managed properly.

The plan also promises transit expansion – but only after the freeway has been built, which is too late for it to do any good. The great pressing need in this region now – and for at least the last ten years – is more transit service – especially south of the Fraser – and much better transit servcie everywhere. And transit that actually meets the needs of users would be a welcome novelty too. That means lots of surface transit with priority over cars for the use of the available road space. Because the same length of road lane accommodates either three car drivers or 40 (or more) bus passengers.

And absolutely none of this is new or ground breaking . We have known of the simple math of transit versus freeways for decades. And anyone who is aware of what it happening to this planet knows that the real problem in North America is our houses and our cars.They are the reason our per capita greenhouse gas emissions are some of the highest in the world. And they are also the reason that we have been so ineffective in doing anything about them.

It does not surprise me that a newspaper that thinks “the Liberal government has demonstrated in the past that it is capable of sound financial management” is also in favour of the new  Port Mann bridge. I would have thought that the premise was easily debunked. It is, after all, not hard to run a surplus when oil and gas (and other resource) revenues are high and you have cut spending on essential services to the bone and then some. But a whole range of programs and projects are now showing how thin their claim is to “acumen”.  But running a government is also a lot more than financial bottom line – or it should be.  To take one example, the province is not concerned that many schools are still at risk of collapse in the event of an earthquake in an area which is seismically active and overdue for a big quake. That may seem to the BC Liberals to make financial sense – but it will not bring much cheer to parents after the shake occurs.

The BC Liberals have also been telling us how smart they have been with the Olympics – and claim they will only cost taxpayers $600m. Does anyone now believe that? Is that evidence of “acumen”?

Written by Stephen Rees

February 6, 2009 at 10:42 am

Posted in Gateway

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7 Responses

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  1. […] close-up? [The Globe and Mail] Forestry firm to sell, develop Island property [The Globe and Mail] While the product is right, we’re still not sure about the price. [Stephen Rees’s blog] Burrard Bridge Basics [Price Tags] First Nations Sustainability Conference: […]

    re:place Magazine

    February 6, 2009 at 4:08 pm

  2. Hear hear!


    February 6, 2009 at 7:00 pm

  3. Best quote on highway expansion I’ve seen. From Wilderness Committee Healthy Communities Campaigner Ben West available here:

    “Adding more freeway lanes to deal with traffic congestion is like loosening your belt to deal with obesity”


    February 6, 2009 at 7:04 pm

  4. I can see the next project already:

    Falcon: “We’re planning on twinning the Iron Worker’s Memorial Bridge in order to relieve the massive bottleneck caused by the large amount of traffic traveling through Burnaby and Vancouver on Highway 1.”


    February 6, 2009 at 7:39 pm

  5. It seems like a waste to tear down the existing Port Mann, which remains in good condition. Perhaps it has another half century of life if maintained/upgraded properly.

    The Province is acting like the new bridge will last forever. Guess what – it will have to be maintained and eventually replaced too.

    Again, Gordon, Falcon and co. are rushing ahead madly without providing any accountability. The public is at least owed a detailed cost-benefit analysis and a new round of consultations.


    February 7, 2009 at 11:23 am

  6. I’m staggered by the sheer waste and utter stupidity of this plan which the Province is forcing upon Lower Mainland citizens.

    Five years of easier traffic, followed by fifty years of debts, congestion, pollution, and blight.


    February 8, 2009 at 5:10 pm

  7. Five years? More like five months if the example of the Alex Fraser is anything to go by

    Stephen Rees

    February 8, 2009 at 7:04 pm

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