Stephen Rees's blog

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

Port Mann Tolls

with 10 comments

The mainstream media is full of the reduction in tolls announced by the Minister of Transport yesterday. Laila Yuile, on Huffington Post, sees it as bait and switch – a blatant and possibly fruitless attempt to get back lost BC Liberal votes. But her opening paragraph really gave me pause

The Port Mann Bridge project has been steeped in controversy from its humble beginnings as an economically prudent plan to twin the existing bridge at a cost of $1.5 billion to what we’ve ended up with today: a completely new bridge and highway project totaling $3.3 billion financed through tolls.

First it was never, ever “economically prudent”. It was based on misdirection – that somehow the traffic jam of cars every day was threatening the competitiveness of the Port of Vancouver. The truckers were always front and centre of this argument. This fiction was fairly easy to dismiss. Most of the tonnage moving through the port is bulk commodities that come in by rail – and pipeline (of course but lets not get distracted). The container imports also move by rail – except for those destined for distribution facilities which tend to be located on cheap land at some distance from the port terminals.

What the intention was – always – was to widen the freeway from the Vancouver boundary to the Abbotsford boundary. The Port Mann bridge was never a standalone project. It might have been defensible if it had simply been a removal of a bottleneck to free up short distance movements between Surrey and Coquitlam (which is what most of the traffic over the bridge does in reality). But all that is planned is to replace a small bottleneck with a bigger bottle. The number of lanes on the bridge was always less than those leading on to it – and that will still be the case afterwards. There will just be more of both.

The Gateway made the idea of freeway expansion palatable because it was wrapped up in rhetoric about economic growth and increased competitiveness. The reality was different.

Kevin Falcon on the widest bridge in the world

Kevin Falcon was a developer before he became a politician. There has always been a strong lobby against the regional plan which was seen as restricting what developers could do south of the Fraser. In fact, it made very little difference, as Doug McCallum ably demonstrated when Mayor of Surrey – and Chair of Translink. He easily duplicated the spread of big box retail along Highway 99 to replicate what was already in place in Whatcom County along I5. Junction “improvements” on both Highways 1 and 99 were funded  by deals with developers on what had been land reserved for highway expansion adjacent to the intersections. And the sprawl of supposedly “affordable” housing (“drive till you qualify”) continued unabated. Kevin ran for election using funds raised at breakfasts attended by the real estate community who he encouraged to “get on board”. The highway expansion would enable them to build more of what they has always built and they knew they could sell. What made them really nervous was talk of transit and transit oriented development – for they were unfamiliar with both. Rail for the Valley was pretty much a hopeless case. Not that it could not have been done physically or financially – just that it was a hard sell to the money men. The people who fund the BC Liberals and pick their preferred candidates.

Laila again

To those of us who travel the bridge, it had been clear for years something needed to be done to address the gridlock on both ends. Public transportation south of the Fraser is horrific during the week and nearly non-existent in some areas on the weekend, making vehicles mandatory for most.

At least she declares her interest. We know that the only effective way to address “gridlock” is to reduce peak demand for single occupant vehicle travel. In the short term the only way to do that is to price car use, and increase transit supply. In the longer term, denser and more mixed land use – served by walkable and bikeable routes – is the way to break the linkage between growth and sprawl. Again, really attractive transit has to be part of the mix. The provision of billions of dollars of provincial funding for highway expansion – and the new bridge – is one of the reasons why there is a crisis in funding for transit. It does look like there will be a rapid bus service of some sort when the new Port Mann opens but the only way that can be funded is by cutting service elsewhere.

There are options – there always are – always were. Just most of them get rejected. The BC Liberals kept dancing around insisting that there had to be more local funding – mostly because they always wanted to tap into property tax some more. And the insistence on looking for more efficiencies was always a good distraction. As was fare evasion: actually only 4% of riders have no ticket and the revenue loss is less than that. But somehow much money and attention can be thrown at that “problem” – but nothing to deal with overcrowding other than diversion of existing resources. And the idea of increasing transit service were it is currently inadequate or non-existent  just does not get onto the radar because the places that already have good transit want more.

I can understand Laila’s anger – and her choice of target. It is just all too short term. I do not expect the BC Liberals to win – as the latest polls confirm. The problem is that afterwards it is going to be very hard to reverse the land use changes already in train as a result of the decision to widen the freeway. The type of development we are seeing – and will see – is not going to be sustainable, transit oriented or readily convertible. Land uses in Coquitlam and Vancouver will change a bit once the Evergreen and the UBC lines open – but not by nearly enough to shift the region’s mode split by very much. South of the Fraser is car country now – and still will be – and all of the emphasis is going to have to be how to make those cars less of a problem. So expect a lot more attention on car sharing, alt fuels and electric vehicles – none of which individually has much impact and even collectively is little more than a band aid. The systemic problem of car dependance  will remain even if we can overcome some of our fondest held beliefs – like car ownership and not sharing rides (not getting into cars with strangers) and the need to limit access to the public transport market.

The tolls – which after a year will go back up to $3 a crossing – will have some impact on restraining demand for car trips between Surrey and Coquitlam. They might even get better at pricing strategies than they have so far on the Golden Ears, which has plenty of underused capacity at peak periods. But it will have no impact at all on car use on the rest of the Highway. There will be no toll for a trip between Vancouver and Burnaby, New Westmister or Coquitlam. No-one will pay a toll between Surrey and Langley. And there will be a lot of lane space that will quickly fill up – even if some people will be making longer (but perceived to be “faster”) trips to use that new space. Yes, car use in the region has declined a bit – but mostly in places where there is an alternative. Along Highway 1 – until it fills up again – car use will grow. And that means a lot more traffic on the local road network that feeds the freeway. And more pressure from neighbourhoods to spend money on frustrating the through traffic, rather than spending money on better alternatives for local trips.

Laila is, I think, right in that this obvious tactic will misfire. But that is not the real issue. How do we now persuade people that it is worth spending more money on a transit system that is so blatantly organized to favour part of the region at the expense of the rest?

Written by Stephen Rees

September 13, 2012 at 10:08 am

10 Responses

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  1. Stephen, I have read that when the new port mann bridge is competed, the old bridge will be dismantled, in order to make room for the completion of the highway ramps.

    The idea has been put out there that the old bridge should be kept for cyclists and pedestrians.

    There likely is not the cyclist or pedestrian traffic demand to warant a bridge at this time, but it seems like a great opportunity that could be lost. I realize that there would be a significant cost to make this happen, but maybe less than the cost of dismantling the old bridge.

    have you heard anything about this idea?

    Adam Fitch

    September 14, 2012 at 7:06 pm

  2. I read that too and thought it was goofy idea at best….

    Where would pedestrians come from and where would they to go? surely, looking at the current bridge (the old one), it is fairly obvious that a pedestrian would have to walk for a long distance from “civilization” to cross that (old) bridge and then walk for another long distance to reach “civilization” again… under a pouring rain, hot sun etc.
    One would have to be either totally broke and needing to cross the river very badly OR it would have to be an unusual emergency (after an earthquake the brother of friend of mine walked 30 km from his home to his mom’s home to find out what happened to her)

    The only good use for that old bridge would be for transit…but we know that transit isn’t really high on the BC Liberals agenda. It’s not that they are truly horrible people….they just have never had to will or opportunity to see and use decent transit systems.

    Red frog

    September 14, 2012 at 10:32 pm

  3. @Adam

    What I read was the adamant refusal of the Ministry to even consider the idea. The old bridge has to be removed in order to connect up the ramps – according to them. As Monsieur Frog says, the old bridge is not exactly an attractive pedestrian/bike route – and since the new bridge is next to it reduces its value as a viewing platform for the river. The new bridge is also the widest in the world (whoopee!) so in future some of that capacity is going to have to be diverted to mass transit of some kind. I should only live so long!

    Stephen Rees

    September 15, 2012 at 11:36 am

  4. I recognise all that you said, but i do have some thoughts:

    1. a pedestrian and cycling route does not need as gradual (large radius curves, grades and transitions) as for motor vehicles, so ramps at both ends could connect the old bridge to bike routes while still allowing the “gateway project” to be completed. of course that means a big investment, but to me seems like a good investment in the long run.

    2. I like views of the river too, but imagine the future benefits of people sitting on a clogged new port mann bridge, looking over and seeing people biking and walking freely on an old port mann bridge. priceless.

    3. it is not that attractive biking or walking beside a freeway (or a high speed high capacity toll-highway). even being separated from traffic by a few metres, when that separation consists of two barriers and some airspace, will make the route much more attractive.

    4. I would love it if someone would price this out. Apparently, when the Canada Line bridge over the north arm of the Fraser River was just about to be constructed, Metro Vancouver / Translink made a last minute decision to add a ped/bike route to the bridge, and they did it. It is quite fantastic.

    I think, if could be done 3 years ago, it could be done again. I want to start a movement for this.

    Adam Fitch

    Adam Fitch

    September 16, 2012 at 11:34 pm

  5. Red Frog: I prefer to think in the longer term. Sure, no-one walks across the bridge now.

    To do so would be gross, if not dangerous. Plus, gas is $1.40 per litre.

    Try to imagine a different world. An attractive route, restricted to walkers and cyclists only. gas at $3.00 per litre. A boom in more affordable market and rental residential development in both surrey and coquitlam, prompted by better transit access. I believe in planning for the future we want, not the past we see.

    Adam Fitch

    Adam Fitch

    September 16, 2012 at 11:42 pm

  6. Adam, cycling is not an option for commuting from the suburbs.I’m not aware of anywhere in the world where >100,000 people would commute 20-30kms by bicycle. If you commute by bicycle you simply make different choices about where you live and work. You cannot replace an automobile-based decision with a bicycle-based decision. When gas prices go through the roof, the current commuters will make other choices, but all but a very few of them will choose to substitute their current car commute with a bike commute.

    A romantic notion of people using the old bridge as a bike/ped facility glosses over the fact that we’ve all just spent way too much money on way too big of a bridge. A bridge which will be encouraging bad commuting choices for another generation all while acting as a drain on the regional economy and personal finances of the users.

    there should be no more public money spent on this corridor. If we need more room for bikes and peds in the future it can be taken from one of the 10 lanes of traffic on the new structure. Jersey barriers will work fine. If you can stomach the mess of roads and traffic leading up to the bridge then you will be also comfortable behind the barriers.


    September 17, 2012 at 11:20 pm

  7. Well, obviously, I don’t agree with you, Andrew; I am looking at a mix of progressive planning, and real-politics. In what world are vehicle lanes on a new highway bridge going to be given over to peds and cyclists. This is metro vancouver and the province of BC, not the city of Vancouver. I do not see that happening anytime soon.

    Second, I cannot agree that someone riding a bike behind a jersey barrier will experience anything like riding on a separate bridge. No comparison.

    Third, there is no point in using THIS discussion to try to re-fight the battle over whether a new bridge should have been built or not. It is built. It must be accepted. My point is, why now tear down the old bridge, when there is a value left in it?

    Fourth, I do not accept that there will never be bike commuters from Surrey. Apparently in Copenhagen or Holland, they are building bike commuter highways. If they can do it there, we can do it here. Think big!

    Adam Fitch

    September 18, 2012 at 1:05 pm

  8. I don’t know why anyone is talking about keeping the old Port Mann bridge. Even if it was feasible to maintain the main span for low impact use, both approaches would have to be rebuilt. People think a couple of dedicated bike lanes in downtown Vancouver were too expensive. Can you imagine the outcry if someone proposed spending over 100 times that much at Port Mann?

    I also find it ridiculous to compare places like Copenhagen and Holland, both more or less completely flat with high density human scale development, to the vast emptiness and 4km long hill between United Blvd and Guildford.


    September 18, 2012 at 3:02 pm

  9. Adam: using the term “progressive planning” in the context of the Port Mann project is an oxymoron. The whole project was a costly mistake, but its time to move on. The discussion around using the old bridge as a tool to re-localize the area next to a monolithic highway structure which is clearly going to promote highway dependent development everywhere along its path is somewhat looking at the world through rose coloured glasses. Anyway the Real-politic is that the decision has already been made to tear down the old bridge.

    To think that retaining the old bridge is enough to turn Coquitlam and Surrey into Copenhagen and Amsterdam I think is really far fetched. Its certainly ok to dream, but the amount money needed to do this would likely fund cycling infrastructure for many many years in communities which have been built on a scale which actually accommodates cyclists. For example its far more important to spend money within Surrey and Coquitlam to build up their cycling infrastructure than it is to connect the two cities. Cycling is more likely to happen and to grow within the communities as local transportation than as a form of regional transportation… (that’s what cars, buses and rapid transit are for). In Copenhagen or Amsterdam you don’t have to travel 20-30 kms to get to work, school or shopping and you would never think of doing it if the possibility existed. If we built Surrey and Coquitlam like Cop’gen or A’dam we certainly would never have needed a 10 lane PM bridge.

    They’ve already put a 3m+ wide bike path for the inter-regional bike commuters on the new bridge… That will certainly be enough for the foreseeable future…

    Yes lets invest lots of new money in cycling infrastructure in Metro Vancouver… but not at the Port Mann Bridge.


    September 21, 2012 at 12:09 am

  10. Andrew, I guess you don;t understand. I am not saying that the NEW port mann bridge is progressive planning. I am saying that preserving, converting and repurposing the OLD bridge would be progressive planning.

    I know that there is not currently the demand for that level of infrastrcuture. However, the infrastructure for this to be there is 90% in place.

    When that bridge is demolished, the BC government will receive pennies on the dollar, in terms of what it cost to construct in the first place.

    I believe that the investment that would be required to preserve and convert that bridge would be a good investment, and I just want to get that discussion going, before the damn thing is demolished.

    Adam Fitch

    September 23, 2012 at 2:51 pm

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