Stephen Rees's blog

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

Port Mann Bridge Expansion Letter

with 4 comments

The following letter was posted to the LRC mailing list. It is so well written and referenced I thought it should be shared here too.

I just thought I would post the letter I’ve been sending to various posts in the government, if anyone is interested. Hopefully proponents of this project will recognize that the citizens affected by (and paying for) it are not as ignorant of its consequences as they seem to think we are.

Brian Beaudry

Dear ______,

I am writing this letter to you with a sense of extreme urgency. I understand fully that the metropolitan area of Vancouver is in desperate need of infrastructure improvements: such investments would not only alleviate traffic congestion, but also provide an important source of employment in the midst of an economic downturn. However, the plan as it currently exists – highway and bridge expansion – is a disastrously short-sighted project with no long-term benefits whatsoever. There is overwhelming evidence from across North America and Europe that projects of this type are rapidly rendered obsolete as the added traffic capacity simply encourages previous non-commuters to use the new lanes. In effect, the expansion induces traffic until a “self-limiting equilibrium” is achieved.(*1)

In fact, one need not even look outside of the city to find an example of just this failure. The Alex Fraser bridge, completed in 1986, was expected to reach maximum capacity in 1993. Instead, peak hour traffic was suffering from dramatic congestion only 9 months later, and little has changed since.(*2) Furthermore, highway construction and expansion merely addresses one of myriad transportation issues – namely, congestion. If other factors are taken into account, such as pollution, traffic safety, energy conservation, parking savings, investment savings and land-use efficiency, mass transit upgrades are drastically more effective.

Take the instance of high-capacity rail transit. A study by the American Federal Transit Administration on six urban corridors served by such systems revealed that 17,400 hours were saved per day by transit users, remaining road users saved 22,000 hours, and there was a further reduction of 20,700 hours of congestion per day in the surrounding road network as a result of decreased traffic spillover.(*3) Altogether, these reductions have annually saved 235 million USD for the regions. In fact, if the total amount to be invested in the Port Mann expansion were instead invested in expansion of the Skytrain system, the new network would spread from Coquitlam to White Rock, and Delta to Maple Ridge.(*4)

There has even been considerable internal dissent – the Director of Planning and Building for the City of Burnaby has repeatedly expressed great concern over the supposed benefits of the Gateway Program as a whole.(*5) Little to no consideration has been given to environmental impacts on the Burnaby Lake area, the choke points surrounding the project resulting from the narrowing of a ten lane bridge to eight and six lane roadways, or the potential for net increases of carbon emmisions and particulate pollution. The further promotion of low- and single-occupancy vehicular traffic only encourages low-density suburban sprawl – returning in a vicious cycle to an increased demand on the already expanded highway system. This program clearly defies the the objectives of the Livable Region Strategic Plan. As a result, the City of Burnaby has voiced similar concern of the lack of research into Gateway Program alternatives.(*6)

So what are some alternatives? As previously mentioned, a similar investment would fund a massive expansion of light rail transit throughout the GVA. Some of this funding would be recovered through transit fares themselves. However, to simultaneously encourage transit use, pay for its expansion, further decrease traffic congestion and reduce pollution sourced from transportation, a variable toll system could be instituted. This has been successfully introduced in large metropolises such as London and Singapore, but a case-study with significant coorelations to Vancouver is Stockholm. With numerous bridges spanning the many islands and peninsulas that comprise the city, they face similar issues of commuting choke points and restricted road access.

On 3 January 2006 Stockholm announced a trial period for a toll system theorized decades earlier by the Nobel-prize winning economist William Vickery.(*7) It consists of a network of automated tolling with fees dependent on time of day and locale within the city. For instance, a toll on a major thourough-fare at rush hour would costabout $3.00, with minor roadways costing less. After rush hour, such tolls are turned off altogether. This system has the added effect of reducing peak hour congestion, and spreading traffic volume to more managable densities over a longer portion of the day. Within the first 7 months, traffic was reduced by 22%, accidents resulting in injury fell by a minimum of 5%, carbon dioxide emissions fell by 14% and public transit saw ridership increase by 10%.(*8) It was so successful that Stockholm has adopted the program as a permanent fixture of its long-tem transportation development.

It is clear that the current structure of the Gateway Program is, while well-intentioned, designed as a political and structural expedient. It is a makeshift solution at best. Infrastructure alternatives exist that address the full spectrum of transporation-related concerns with greater effectiveness. While highway and bridge expansion may well be a part of the overall development of the Gateway Program, mass transit should be its primary means of effective urban and suburban development.

Thank you kindly for your time.


Brian Beaudry

(*1) Litman, Todd. “Smart Transportation Investments: Reevaluating the Role Of Highway Expansion For Improving Urban Transportation.” Victoria Transport Policy Institute. 1 Oct. 2006.

(*2) “Will Freeway Expansion Kill The Livable Region?” The Livable Region Coalition. Oct. 2004.

(*3) Transit Benefits 2000 Working Papers: A Public Choice Policy Analysis. Federal Transit Administration, Office of Policy Development Policy Paper, Washington, DC, 2000.

Available at:

“Critical Relief For Traffic Congestion: Public transportation reduces hours of delay in major travel.” American Public Transportation Association. 2003.

(*4) “Modern Tram Expansion.” The Livable Region Coalition. Vancouver, Canada. 25 Feb. 2009.

(*5) Belhouse, J.S. “Provincial Gateway Program: Status Report.” Planning and Building, City of Burnaby. Burnaby, Canada. 25 May 2005.

(*6) Belhouse, J.S. “Preliminary Review Of Gateway Program’s ‘Project Definition Report.'” Planning and Building, City of Burnaby. Burnaby, Canada. 16 Feb. 2006.

(*7) “Stockholm Congestion Charge.” SPG Media Limited. 2009.

(*8) Luciani, Patrick. “Traffic Congestion: The Stockholm Solution.” Atlantic Institute for Market Studies. Halifax, Canada. Oct. 2006.

Written by Stephen Rees

March 4, 2009 at 2:56 pm

Posted in Gateway

4 Responses

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  1. Thank you for sharing. It is indeed very well written and will hopefully get at least a few more people thinking about alternatives to highway expansion.


    March 4, 2009 at 4:34 pm

  2. […] City hall lawn gets dug up for community garden [State of Vancouver] Sustainawhat? [Price Tags] Port Mann Bridge Expansion Letter [Stephen Rees’s blog] INTERNATIONAL Experiments in District Heating [Wall St. Journal] […]

    re:place Magazine

    March 4, 2009 at 6:05 pm

  3. Very well written piece. I was wondering if you ever considered the primary objectives of the Port Mann and Highway 1 expansion project and whether the alternatives that you (and other oppenents) are suggesting would actually achieve these. From my understanding from reading numerous reports written by the government, the primary goal is to support trade and economy. The International Trade market is switching to an Asia-Pacific corridor, and in order for BC to take full advantage of its geographic location it would need to improve on its infrastructure. The movement of people through the Highway 1 corridor is a secondary objective (or added benefit)of the project. Also, the government aknowledges that the new lanes and bridge will become congested once again with single occupant vehicles. However, the additional lanes added to Highway 1 will be HOV lanes or commercial/bus lanes only, thus encouraging BC’s economy and providing public transportation between Langley and Burnaby. Eventually (once the demand is high enough according to private sector professionals in urban planning) a rapid transit line will be added across the new Port Mann bridge.

    Is it possible that building another skytrain would encourage trade? Most likely not. The capital costs of the Port Mann Highway 1 project are around $2.5 billion. The 19 km long Canada Line cost $2 billion to build. So, is it really possible to expand the existing Skytrain system from Coquitlam to White Rock, and Delta to Maple Ridge for less than how much it is costing to build the new Port Mann and widen Highway 1?


    June 6, 2009 at 8:50 pm

  4. The claim that the Gateway project will support trade expansion has been shown to be overstated many times on this blog. You obviously have been looking hard for things to write about since you are commenting on a post that is months old. It is a pity that you did not pay attention to any of the other posts which have dealt with the decline of international trade in general – and between North America and Asia in particular. The current depression is not cyclical but based on the collapse of a economic system that has shown itself to be unsustainable. There is much spare capacity in ports on the Pacific coast – and has been for some years – and is unlikely to change much any time soon. Thanks to global warming the north west passage is now navigable – and a new larger Panama Canal is under construction. Both routes offer cheaper ways to access the US market. In any event nearly all the import and export traffic through the Port of Vancouver destined for outside this region moves by rail. The majority of trucking is to and from distribution centres which should have been better located. The greatest constraint on trade is not the road network but the single track railway swing bridge at New Westminster. There is still no credible plan to replace that.

    You assert that a rapid transit line will be added to the Port Mann Bridge “when demand is high enough”. This does not do anything to meet present problems. It is not part of any current plan. Nowhere has the government published any examination of where such a line would start or end nor what route it would take. The best the present government can promise is that the existing SkyTrain line will be extended to Langley by 2030. I suggest you visit much of the discussion about the cost of the freeway project – and also why the Canada Line is an example of needlessly expensive construction with very low capacity.

    Stephen Rees

    June 7, 2009 at 9:33 am

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