The Q2Q bridge is an important project for New Westminster, and one I support. It is, however, a project with major challenges, and I am glad we are at a stage where the next phase of public consultation is taking place, so we can talk about some of those challenges, and what they mean to the City.
First off, I need to put my comments on the Q2Q into context, in relation to my position on Council.
The Q2Q concept was developed long before I was elected, even before I started to rabble-rouse in the community on transportation topics. However, I have expressed strong support for the project for years, even piping up to challenge some of the past opponents of the concept. I have always believed, and continue to believe, that the Queensborough community needs to have a reliable, safe, and accessible connection to the “mainland” of New Westminster, and that connecting the beautiful waterfront greenways of Queensborough to the Quayside boardwalk will have huge benefits for both communities. When the topic came up during the election, I was quick to say I supported the project and wanted to see it built as soon as possible.
Now that I am on Council, and am (in part) responsible for getting this project done, the brutal reality of the project has set in. The bridge some of us may dream of may not be possible in this location, and the development of palatable compromises is daunting and frustrating at times. It is becoming a lesson for me about the reality of planning for community infrastructure when a local government’s power is so limited.
If someone were to ask me what I wanted to see in a Q2Q bridge, it would look something like this:
The bridge would be approximately the elevation of the boardwalks on either side, fully accessible, would be at least 3m wide, and would have an interesting design aesthetic that creates some regional buzz when it is built. As marine traffic would need to cross, it would have an innovative swing style that was integrated in to the design, and was an eye-catcher such that the 5-minute wait for the boat to cross was not something that irritated you, but intrigued you. It would even have areas over the water where you could sit, have a picnic, drop a fish line in the water, or take photos of crossing trains, passing boats, or overhead eagles. It would also represent an easy connection for people commuting by bikes, people out for a stroll, people pushing kids in a stroller – a seamless connection across the river.
But that ain’t going to happen, because the City doesn’t own the river. Although the North Arm of the Fraser at that location is a significant industrial transportation corridor regulated by the Navigation Protection Act and Port Metro Vancouver. I cannot emphasize enough that the people who make a living moving things up and down the river would much prefer no bridge there at all, and due to the nature of the regulations, the people working the river get the say about what goes in, on, or over the river. If they don’t agree, nothing gets built.
The “they” in the case of the North Arm of the Fraser River are the Council of Marine Carriers. They use the North Arm of the Fraser to move barges, boats, booms, and all sorts of floating things. There are no alternate routes, and their business relies on it, so they are pretty motivated to keep the North Arm accessible.
If you haven’t noticed, the train bridge connecting the Quayside to Queensborough is open most of the time to marine transport, and only swings closed when a train needs to cross the river. This would not be a great situation for the Q2Q bridge if we want it to be a reliable transportation connection that pedestrians and cyclists can rely upon. We need a bridge where the default position is closed (to boats), that only swings open when the boats go by, with a cycle quick enough that it won’t cause major inconvenience for either user group.
For the bridge to operate like this, the Marine Carriers have determined a clearance of 14.5m over the water is required. This would permit enough boats to pass under without opening the bridge that a default-closed position is acceptable to the folks who work on the river. This 14.5m makes for a pretty challenging crossing for cyclists or pedestrians with mobility problems. Hence, we can’t have the bridge we want.
The question then becomes – how do we get people up to 14.5m? A ramp that meets typical mobility-access standards (i.e. no more than 5% grade – and yes, I am aware and frightened that 8% grades are shown on the rendering) would need to be about 250m long, even longer if we add standard landings at set distances. This would be expensive, and create a long visual intrusion for the Quayside residents next to the bridge. Stairs wrapped around an elevator column would have a much smaller visual impact, and if we can avoid the design mistake that led to a completely unacceptable delay on the Pier Park elevator (yes, we can), the size and scale of that structure is a good estimate of what the bridge landings would look like.
I would love to see some creative alternate approaches, and we may see some coming from the engineers we hire to build the bridge. The corkscrew ramps at the southern foot of the Golden Ears Bridge seem very effective to me, and are of the same scale vertically, although I’m not sure we have the footprint area to take the same approach:
…and I have my doubts whether Port Metro Vancouver would allow us to build such a structure over top of the water. It has already been suggested that the structure as proposed would require the highest level of environmental review (“Type D”) which makes it sound like a pedestrian and cyclist bridge will somehow have a bigger environmental risk than a coal terminal or LNG export facility.
You may also have noticed the plans for the bridge shifted from being slightly upstream of the train bridge to slightly below. The upstream side as a little better for the City, as both landings work better, but the downstream was deemed safer for boat traffic. Unfortunately, this means the landing on the Queensborough side is going to be much more complicated (read: expensive) to build.
Alas, we are stuck with what we have. I can complain about an industry group having more power than an elected local government about how our river is used, but as we learned in the Fraser Surrey Docks coal terminal discussions, the Port does not answer to local governments, but to their own mandate, and Sunny Ways are not likely to shift their business model any time soon.
So we will do what we can to build the most accessible, most convenient, and most user friendly bridge within the constraints given us, even if it isn’t as elegant as one we might see in a place like Copenhagen.