City Open House on the Pattulo – Part 1

I am just starting to get back to regular life, after all the excitement of this week.

In New Westminster, there have been no less than two major twitterstorm brous-ha-ha (which I contend is the appropriate plural form of that word).

One is the announcement that the City will charge ahead with the MUCF and office tower, after their developer-partner bailed. I have had a lot of conversations with a lot of people about this in the last week, and will opine soon.

The bigger news story to me was the huge turnout by the people of New Westminster at the Master Transportation Plan open houses. Yes, there was discussion about the MTP, but (and it pains me to say this as a member of the MTP Committee) the real issue of the night was not the MTP, it was the damn Bridge. The MTP was like Larry Holmes vs. Rodney Bobick in Manila in 1975: a nominally interesting lead-in to the real show.

The meeting I attended at the Justice Institute was very well attended. The room has a seating capacity of 250, and there were not many empty seats. Apparently, the daytime meeting at the Century House was also very well attended, with estimates north of 100 people (“crowded enough to be just uncomfortable” was how it was described to me).

More than 300 people from across the City come out on a Thursday to debate transportation policy. This is why I love New Westminster.

Another reason is that this meeting was live-streamed by a group of volunteers: and that video is available for you to watch now. Got to to see the video, and thank the people who produced it.

Again, New Westminster demonstrated to TransLink what consultation looks like. The consultant engaged by the City outlined the proposal presented by TransLink, and then showed various other options that TransLink had not offered. More importantly, he talked about the myriad of things we need to discuss when talking about the future of the bridge.

First, the options.

Options 1 & 2 are, respectively, the upstream and downstream options of the six-lane bridge, as proposed by TransLink. Enough said about those. The one interesting point raised at this meeting is that this option may cost in the order of $750 Million, which is less than the $1 Billion that TransLink suggested during their initial consultations.

Option 3 is the refurbishment of the existing bridge. This would reduce the lanes to a three-lane counterflow design similar to the Lions Gate, and would cost in the order of $200Million. It was suggested at the meeting that this would result in increased congestion, but that is a debateable point. Most urban transportation experts and the experience of every other city in the history of earth suggests the exact opposite.

Options 4 & 5 are replacing the bridge in approximately the same locations TransLink has proposed, but building a modern 4-lane bridge. Order of magnitude costs for this are $600 Million. This option provides all the safety and structural benefits of the TransLink proposals, at a lower costs, and has the bonus of not causing a major shift in the traffic situation on either side of the bridge.

Option 6 involved simply decommissioning the bridge and replacing it with air. I have to admit, 6 months ago when I started blogging about this, I would have thought that a fanciful option, but a couple of New West City Councillors have mentioned it as an option, and judging by the response of the crowd at the JI (watch the coverage at 51:40, that is the loudest reaction at any moment in the presentation), I am coming around to seeing that this might be a viable starting point for negotiations, and an idea worth exploring.

This option was priced at about $40 Million. I heard it said after the meeting by a business leader in the City; “Give me two weeks, I’ll get you the $40 Million”. She might have been being facetious, but there is no doubt that money would be easily returned just by developing the land freed up by the removal of the bridge.

Options 7 & 8 are both about moving the bridge to different locations, each explored at different times in the past, one upstream at Sapperton Bar, one at Tree Island. Both of these are less compelling to me, both because they are more expensive than the Pattullo replacement ($2.5 Billion and $2 Billion respectively), and they both smack somewhat of Nimbyism. If a new bridge and more traffic is bad for New West, it is also bad for Coquitlam and Burnaby, and the resultant increase in traffic from any big bridge on our doorstep will have negative impacts on our City (see the Port Mann experience).

The consultation part of the meeting was further helped by the consultant discussing that there are factors in choosing a bridge other than lane count. He raised some interesting points about how a bridge fits into the community. A strong point is that this bridge is different than the Alex Fraser, the Golden Ears, or even the new Port Mann, in that this bridge is located in the centre of a dense urban area, and is connected to surface streets, not limited-access freeways.

One result of this is that it would be inappropriate to build the cheapest bridge possible, built by the lowest bidder. That will no doubt be TransLink’s intent, but we need to resist that intent.

When building a new crossing out in the country, this may be the approach to choose, just like if you are building an electrical switching house or a water pump station out in the country, you might put up a bland concrete box. If you are building a pump house or an electrical substation in the middle of a dense urban area, you need to incorporate design and aesthetics.

The same goes for a bridge.

If one is to build a major piece of infrastructure that will dominate an urban skyline for 50-100 years, most Cities would engage in an international design competition. There are architects and bridge designers who would love to apply their skill and talent to an iconic structure. Think of the roof of BC Place, the Vancouver Convention Centre, even the stations on the Millennium SkyTrain Line: like them or hate them, they are designed with aesthetic values, not dull pre-stressed concrete function-only structures, like the three five cable-stayed bridges over the Fraser River (if the throw the Skytrain and Canada Line bridges into the discussion).

A second point is that we need to carefully consider the transportation engineering of the bridge. Again, using the Alex Fraser, the Golden Ears, and the Port Mann 2 as examples, all are built to expressway standards. This makes sense, as they are on expressways. But if we build a new bridge in the middle of an urban area, connecting to surface streets, should it be built more like a surface street?

TransLink is likely assuming that the new bridge will be built with open wide lanes, as you would design for 80km/h or 100km/h traffic. As the roads on either side are 50km/h, the bridge will no doubt have a similar speed limit, and everyone will ignore it. If we were building a surface street, it would have curb bulges, roundabouts, a planted median, etc. to create a dynamic visual landscape, and to slow traffic.

The discussion included many other topics, including costs, traffic impacts, visual and safety impacts, maintenance issues.

Clearly, there are lots of things to discuss about the future of the Pattullo other than how the offramps will attach to the existing streets.

When they got to the point, it was this: Consultation is not TransLink telling us what they are going to build. Much like the Lions Gate process, we need to “debate then decide”, not the other way around.

So let’s get this debate started.

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