What now for the Pattullo Bridge?

The Pattullo Bridge needs replacing. Built 80 years ago but designed to last 50 years, it desperately needs replacing. River scour is causing foundation issues. The reinforcing steel is corroding. The concrete is degrading. The lanes are narrow and dangerous. It needs to go.

TransLink has a plan for replacing it, with a new bridge planned to open in 2023. In 2014 New Westminster city council did a road tour around to other councils in Metro Vancouver to push for a four-lane tolled bridge — at the time Surrey wanted a six-lane bridge. Surrey agreed that a four-lane bridge would do, as long as it could be easily expanded to six lanes should vehicular traffic volumes dictate it.

In 2016 Surrey, New Westminster, and TransLink agreed that the new Pattullo would be tolled. This is important, as the toll would help to shape traffic patterns (along with the tolls on the Golden Ears and Port Mann bridges, and on the future Massey Tunnel replacement bridge) and, more importantly, pay off roughly half of the cost of building the bridge.

And then a couple of days ago the BC Liberals said they’d cap bridge tolls at $500 per year. The BC NDP one-upped them, saying they would completely eliminate tolls.

So what does this mean for the Pattullo Bridge replacement? All of a sudden TransLink has lost about $500 million in toll revenue that they were planning on using to pay off their portion of the construction of the Pattullo Bridge replacement. Where does that money come from? The bridge needs to be replaced, that can’t be put off. But an organization with an operations budget of around $1.6 billion can’t magically pull $500 million out of a hat. Do they have to cut operational funding, which means cuts in service? Do they cut other capital projects they were planning, like the Surrey LRT or the Broadway SkyTrain line? Do they raise fares?

All of a sudden the two largest political parties in BC have thrown this planning into disarray. They’ve shown that not only are they willing to ignore the Mayors Council and TransLink, who have worked hard over the past five years to come up with plans to improve transportation in Metro Vancouver despite a hostile provincial government, they’re also willing to ignore decades of studies in transportation planning that show that congestion charges or mobility pricing, when instituted in conjunction with increases in public transit funding and availability, are the best way to fight congestion. Instead they’ve both gone with populist policies that will only serve to get them elected, and will set the region backwards five to ten years.

The BC Liberals and the BC NDP need to tell New Westminster and Surrey how the new Pattullo Bridge will be paid for, and they need to tell us before we all vote on May 9.

Speed on the Pattullo Bridge

In April 2015 G. Ho Engineering Consultants prepared a report for TransLink titled Pattullo Bridge Road Safety Assessment. In it they examined (amongst other things) speed levels on the Pattullo.

The speed limit on the Pattullo Bridge is 50 km/h, as the bridge is narrow, lacks a barrier between opposing traffic flows, lacks a barrier between the sidewalk and the adjacent traffic lane, and lacks modern crash standards on the parapets (the sides of the bridge that would stop cars from swan diving into the Fraser).

They collected speed data on November 7, 2014, and what they found was fairly alarming. 50% of northbound (Surrey to New Westminster) were travelling over 50 km/h, while nearly 95% of southbound were breaking the speed limit. About 12% of the vehicles were travelling faster than 70 km/h, the critical speed to safely negotiate the curve on the south side of the bridge.

But in the week between November 2 and November 8, over 1600 vehicles were recorded going over 100 km/h. This is faster than the 90 km/h speed limit on parts of the new, five-lane Highway One, on a bridge that’s half the size!

The engineering consultants gave three recommendations for improving the safety on the Pattullo Bridge:

  1. close the middle lanes for 16 hours a day, opening them only for the morning and afternoon peak periods;
  2. install a permanent concrete median barrier and remove one northbound travel lane; or
  3. install a permanent concrete median barrier and remove one lane in each direction.

Options 2 and 3 are non-starters, as neither Surrey nor New Westminster want to deal with horrendous traffic caused by drivers trying to shoehorn into one lane on the bridge.

Of course, the proper fix is to tear down the Pattullo and build a new, safer bridge, but that’s not going to happen any time soon. As this story puts it: “A transit plebiscite that was to secure funding for the replacement had failed earlier this year.” And of course the province isn’t going to do anything about it (yet they can apparently study a bridge to the Sunshine Coast).

If I could be so bold as to offer another safety-improving measure (and I will) that would be photo radar. The Pattullo Bridge is the perfect location for it. Put cameras on the mid-bridge spans and at either end. Have them ticket drivers going faster than 65 km/h. The 1600 people driving faster than 100 km/h would be hit with a $368 fine for excessive speed, netting nearly $600,000 in fines. Over a year, that’s over $30 million!

But realistically that’s a non-starter as well. The Liberal government axed photo radar in BC because for some reason people enjoy breaking the laws of the road and getting away with it, and for some reason the Liberals listened to all of those people whining about getting a ticket in the mail. And that’s a shame, because whining wins out against safety.

Referendum Facts: The Pattullo Bridge

No matter what happens in the upcoming Metro Vancouver transportation referendum, the Pattullo Bridge will be replaced, and it will be tolled.

The Pattullo Bridge went into service in 1937. It was constructed to the standards of the time, which means that today it is too narrow, it’s dangerous, and if an earthquake hits it’s coming down. It’s so dangerous that TransLink closes the central two lanes at night to prevent head-on collisions. Cycling or walking over the bridge is nearly unheard of.

In short, it’s a bridge in dire need of replacement. It will be replaced.

And tolls? In 2008 TransLink announced its replacement would be tolled. That was six years before any hint of a referendum. Tolling the replacement Pattullo is a foregone conclusion. At current traffic levels, a $3 toll would pay off a $900 million bridge in about 30 years, so the tolls would eventually be dropped.

Now that that’s out of the way, here’s why voting ‘yes’ in the referendum is important for the areas around the Pattullo Bridge:

1) The 0.5% PST increase will fund its replacement.

2) Along with the big capital projects, bus and SkyTrain service will be improved. This means that transit in Surrey, Langley, Delta, and New Westminster will become more attractive, shifting some driving commuters to transit commuters. This will help to slow the increase in congestion around the Pattullo Bridge.

3) The LRT lines in Surrey and Langley will also help shift people away from cars to transit, as connections with SkyTrain from Surrey to New Westminster, Burnaby, and Vancouver will be easier for commuters to make. This will also help to slow the increase in congestion around the Pattullo Bridge.

And here’s what voting ‘no’ in the referendum will result in, around the Pattullo Bridge:

1) Property tax increases will fund its replacement.

2) Because bus and SkyTrain service is not improved, traffic around the Pattullo Bridge will get worse at a greater rate. In fact, keeping funding levels steady means that bus and SkyTrain service could get worse, as operational costs increase. This could shift transit commuters into cars.

Voting ‘no’ means you get a new Pattullo Bridge, have to pay tolls on it, and traffic gets worse.

Voting ‘yes’ means you get a new Pattullo Bridge, have to pay tolls on it, and traffic gets better. And with improved bus and SkyTrain service (and the Surrey/Langley LRT lines) you might decide to take transit and skip paying the tolls altogether.

Vote ‘yes’, not only for a new Pattullo, but for improved bus and SkyTrain service in Surrey, Delta, and New Westminster, and for less congestion over the Pattullo.