I try not to be a hater. When people come to me with interesting ideas, I do my best to hear them out, even do my best to build on their ideas. I poke holes, but I also try to imagine the best patches for those holes.
Example: People have speculated about the future of the existing Pattullo once Pattullo 2.0 is built. Some have suggested an elevated linear park with pedestrian/cycling path, a la the Highline. To me, it seems questionable that TransLink or anyone else is going to spend the hundreds of millions of dollars TransLink says will be required to keep the bridge standing (this is a fundamental part of their argument for its replacement) just to make a small park in the sky. Look at the conniptions that ensued, and still ensue among a few, over a much less expensive park right next door. However, maybe a lot of that money can be saved with the partial removal of the old bridge: knock down the long approach section from Surrey and replace it with a much more modest pedestrian access, and maintenance costs go down. Stick a few revenue-generators on it (restaurant with a great view? zip lines each way? Would the Navigable Waters folks allow a bungee jump?) and maybe we have something to work with…
All this said, I can’t get on side with the idea that building the Stormont Connector is some sort of solution to New Westminster’s through-traffic problems. The gaping holes in that idea are ones I just can’t patch.
For those who don’t know, the Stormont is a mythical road connection through Burnaby, originally designed to connect the north end of McBride, and extend northwards through residential Burnaby neighborhoods, swooping east through forested parks, and connect to Highway 1 at the Gaglardi Way interchange (which was originally designed in the 60’s to accommodate this connection).
My first concern here is that we are purporting to solve New Westminster’s traffic problems by ploughing through 2.5km of Burnaby neighbourhoods and parks. Not very neighbourly. The City of Burnaby owns a significant number of the houses that would be removed or have their front yards severely impacted by the project (for example, they own most of the houses on the East side of Newcombe, but none of the ones on the west side, according the BC Online Cadastre). However, this does nothing for the hundreds of people who live in the adjacent houses, or on the small residential streets that will be bisected by a throughfare. Nor does it do anything for the green space which is valuable ecological habitat between Highway 1 and Burnaby neighbourhoods. Really, the Stormont is a NIMBY solution.
Back in our own backyard, do we really want to bring more cars onto McBride, next to Queens Park? For the current situation on McBride to be “improved” by the Stormont, we will need to get rid of the intersections, build elevated overpasses, and/or expand the number of lanes. What is already a congested, dangerous barrier through the middle of our City would get worse, not better. Or are we somehow imagining that connecting it directly to the newly-expanded 8-lane Highway 1 will reduce the number of cars and trucks on it?
When these issues are raised in a discussion of the Stormont, the usual response is to build it as a cut-and-cover tunnelled highway. Look at that drawing up above. We are talking at least 4 km of dug trench through urbanized areas. The trench will need to be at least three times the width of the Canada Line tunnel on Cambie, as instead of two narrow railway lines with a foot or two of clearance, it will be 4 or 6 wide road lanes, with appropriate safety buffer space on both sides. Costs and comlications of cut-and-cover increase dramatically with width. Because it is gas-burning cars and trucks (not electric transit trains) there will need to be significant air management issues, and with drivers, significant emergency and escape infrastructure. We will need to build underground interchanges at significant intersections (choose any three, engineering challenges abound). There are also, like Cambie Street, 100 years of municipal infrastructure under and on the ground along that 4-km route. Digging a hole in a City is really, really complicated process, for any of a hundred reasons. This would represent, by a very long margin, the longest road tunnel ever built in Canada, and likely the most complicated road-building project ever attemped in Canada.
I’m not saying these things cannot be done. Engineers do amazing things, I am confident is can be done. For a cost. I have talked to transportation engineers about this idea, and they are generally completely unfazed by the challenges listed above. One said to me “Sure, we can build it, got $4 Billion? The rest we will get with the tolls.” Who is lining up to spend Billions of dollars to connect 5km of road through New West and Burnaby?
Then there is also the significant issue of not allowing placarded trucks in tunnels. Dangerous Goods cannot be carried in the Massey Tunnel, or even the Cassiar (which seems less like a tunnel, but is actually longer than the Massey!) If the Pattullo is going to be a primary Goods Movement Route, tunnels of any size of shape are not likely to be part of any solution.
Back to the problem at hand, which is the proposed replacement of the Pattullo Bridge and the impact on New Westminster traffic. During the TransLink Open Houses, they made it very clear that the Pattullo is predominantly a “locals bridge”. According to the presentation on February 21st, the vast majority of traffic using the bridge starts or stops in Surrey on the South, and New Westminster or Burnaby on the North. The Pattullo is not as much of a regional through-route as we think (although the project with expansion, it will become more of one). The Stormont, however, is a regional through-route solution. By facilitating the use of the bridge as a through-route, are we not just attracting more traffic that is not coming today? So how much bigger will we need to make this tunnel to accommodate them?
However, most of all, this scheme is a product of the idea that we can build our way out of traffic congestion. If we just build two more lanes, that will solve our traffic problems. A few less traffic lights will finally get things moving. More roads equals the end of traffic. The only problem being that this has never worked in the history of roadbuilding. If anyone can provide an example of how road expansion has been anything other than a short-term patch on traffic issues, I would love to read the case study. I’m always open to revolutionary ideas like that.
Fixing traffic by building roads is like fixing obesity by buying bigger pants, and the Stormont is a really expensive pair of pants.
So when we are talking Pattullo in the coming months, with the Open Houses coming up at the Century House and the Justice Institute on May 3rd, and someone suggests to you that we need to build Stormont to solve our problems, start asking questions: How? By Whom? At What Cost? How does that help?