It seems that the City’s Master Transportation Plan might not be the biggest transportation story in the New Year.
TransLink is once again launching public consultations on the replacement for the Pattullo Bridge, early in 2012. Lucky for us, TransLink provides lots of on-line material to review before we enter the consultation phase. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, for all of their faults, TransLink has been doing a good job in public consultation.
If I can be reductionist, I think we can summarize the discussion around the Pattullo as coming down to three questions: Fix or replace; How many lanes; and whether to toll or not. As you might expect, I have opinions on each of these.
On the first question, there is a lot of material on the TransLink site that addresses this question, summing up to a pretty compelling argument. As much as I love the aesthetics of the old steel arch-truss, it seems the bridge is reaching the end of it’s service life. The steel and concrete are deteriorating, the bridge does not meet modern seismic standards, and the way the bridge interacts with the river is not what would be considered good engineering practice in 2011.
If one wanted to counter this argument, we could point at dozens of older bridges around the world that are built with similar materials, and that all of these issues could be addressed with a serious refurbishment of the existing structure, but I a not going to doubt the engineers when they say that the cost-benefit math for replacement just works out better. Reuse and recycling are good ideas, but so is efficient use of limited public funds. If the business case for replacement is better that repair, then that is the way to go.
The one part of the TransLink argument about replacement I will argue is the “traffic safety issue”. The fact there has not been a serious accident on the bridge since the evening lane closures were introduced shows that traffic management can deal with the safety on the bridge. I’m not the first to note that enforcing the 50 km/h speed limit with photo radar would be a cheap and easy way to essentially remove the risk of fatal head-ons, but apparently, votes are more important than public safety. That said, the current Pattullo is one of the worst crossings for pedestrians and (especially) bikes, so as a price of sustainable transportation infrastructure, it fails.
So question #1 seems to be settled in TransLink’s mind. They are going to replace the bridge at some point before the old one falls down. Therefore the consultation is going to focus on how they replace it.
Which brings us to Question #2: How many lanes.
The consultation materials are, up to here, a little vague on the lane count issue. They mention that four-lane and six-lane options are on the table. It is only in the March 2011 Options Assessment Report done by Delcan where there is any discussion of the lane count, and the summary is thus:
A new six lane bridge will provide opportunities to improve the connectivity on both sides of the river with additional connections to both the North Fraser Perimeter Road and the South Fraser Perimeter Road. The additional lane in each direction, as compared to the existing bridge or a new four lane bridge, will provide improved operations across the river, especially for large trucks travelling across the bridge to / from the regionally significant Perimeter Roads.
So the justification for extra lanes seems based on the increased traffic demand created by the South and North Fraser Perimeter Roads. Clearly this was written prior to the NFPR being abandoned. They also make it clear that the new Pattullo will not be connected to Front Street, but will remain connected to Royal and McBride. So the first question we should be answering in New Westminster is if we are ready and willing to accept a 50% increase in traffic arriving from the Pattullo. We know that traffic will go along McBride to 10th, along Royal to Stewardson, and along East Columbia to Brunette. Any suggestion that an increase in Pattullo lanes will reduce traffic congestion in New Westminster are, frankly, preposterous.
I think the most rational approach for New Westminster is to build a 4-lane replacement. Coincidentally, this may be the most radical approach as well. Think about it, a major piece of automobile infrastructure replaced with infrastructure of the same size. I don’t think it has ever been done in Greater Vancouver. It would put into steel and concrete the ideals that both the Regional District and TransLink have been talking about for decades: Planning for more a sustainable transportation system; encouraging Transit use and active transportation options, building more compact, transit-oriented neighborhoods so people need to drive less.
If the region and TransLink are serious about planning for a post-Peak Oil era, if the Province and the Region are serious about managing their Green House Gas emissions, if Diane Watts wants serious investment in Rapid Transit for South of the Fraser, and if New Westminster is ready to hold the line on ever-increasing traffic on it’s local roads, then let’s have the courage to build a 4-lane Pattullo and put our money where our ideals are.
Question #3 is a big one, and I think I will hold off on commenting about that until another post.