With all of the excitement around elections, renewed commitments to transit funding somewhat confounded by unclear priorities around the application of road tolling, it is easy to forget the Pattullo Bridge is falling down and scheduled to be replaced very soon. At this point, it is unclear how the replacement will be funded, but it is clear right now that the existing structure is unlikely to be carrying traffic in 2023, so unless they get busy planning the replacement, we will be entering uncharted territory.
Translink is continuing to get busy with that planning, and is currently involved in the Environmental Assessment (“EA”) process. I write about this now, because you have until the middle of next week to provide your first round of input to that process.
The need for an EA is mandated by the province, and the EA itself is run by the Environmental Assessment Office, not by Translink. It is a fairly tightly regulated process, with a structure and firm timelines, so if you at all care about the Pattullo (and I think most people in New West fall under this category), you might want to take your chance to comment while they are open. I thought I might outline the process a bit here, not to tell you what to comment on, but to help you understand the process so your comments have the best chance of being heard.
The first stage of any EA is the pre-application stage when the terms of the EA are determined. The primary purpose of this stage is to evaluate what impacts (positive or negative) will be created by the project, and what are the potential targets of these impacts – so “sediment in the river” is a potential impact of construction work, and “fisheries habitat” is a potential recipient of that impact. The second stage is the actual “Assessment”, where these potential impacts are assessed to determine if they are real, and then to make adequate mitigation of these impacts a condition on moving forward with the project. To have a project (any project, be it a bridge, a mine, or a pipeline) refused an EA certificate would be very unusual. The more likely process for an EA to kill a project would be to create conditions that make the cost or hassle of mitigating an impact so high that the proponent will decide not to proceed. I don’t think that will be the case here.
By necessity, an EA has to have a project to review. So the proponent has to provide a project description to hang the assessment on. It appears, from the preliminary documentation provided by TransLink to the EAO, that project is “a new four-lane bridge funded primarily by user pricing” and “located north and upstream of the existing bridge, its approaches will connect to McBride Boulevard in New Westminster and the King George Boulevard in Surrey” , which is consistent with the public consultation work TransLink has done to date and with the MOU between TransLink, Surrey, and New Westminster. This is important to recognize, because comments like “they need to build 8 lanes for future capacity” or “they should build the bridge in a different location” are not relevant to the EA. Those arguments were made, and discussions had, over the last 5 years while the project was being developed, they are not the current plan, and the EA is not the process through which a radical change of plan will come about. In essence, the question in the EA is not “how best to connect Surrey to New West by roads”, it is “what impact will this 4-lane bridge proximal to the existing one have”. Comments addressing the first question are interesting, but not relevant to this process.
So the comments the EA needs right now are pretty limited, but foundational to the EA to come. Have TransLink and the EAO appropriately identified potential impacts? How do you think the proposed project will impact your life, the livability of your neighbourhood? What concerns you about the project as proposed? If you want TransLink (or other parties, such as the Ministry of Environment) to address something as part of this project, now is the time to ask, so it can get into the EA early, and the proponent has an opportunity to properly address it.
Picking a random example, I have talked in the past about how the Pattullo is an iconic structure. It has significant heritage value for the City of New Westminster. It is hard to finds a picture or photo of the City over the last 75 years that doesn’t feature the large orange arch defining the skyline. There is a value to that for our community. I don’t know how the EAO or TransLink can address that value, or what kind of mitigation can happen, but if we don’t raise that as an issue important to our community now, it will not get into the EA review, and an opportunity to discuss that aspect of the design of the bridge will be lost.
There is another issue that I hope will become clearer as the project EA proceeds, and this might be a bit wonkish. How valid are the traffic modelling assumptions baked into the assessment?
Transportation Planners and City Planners understand that traffic is impacted by induced demand. If we build a 4-lane bridge to replace an existing 4-lane bridge, there will be no more than a marginal increase in traffic counts (perhaps induced by a wider, safer, bridge configuration). That small increase in traffic is fundamental to a bunch of other impacts that will be measured – air quality impacts, noise and vibration, economic impacts, etc. However, if the traffic numbers coming out of this model are based on false assumptions about traffic, then all of the resultant data will be similarly flawed, and mitigation will not be appropriate. With all due respect to our regional transportation planners, the last two major bridges built in this region have completely failed to reach modelled traffic volumes – let’s not three-peat that mistake here.
So if this bridge is being built to accommodate future expansion to 6 lanes, how does that increase in traffic capacity (and concomitant induced demand) change those impacts, and (more importantly at this stage) is that being assessed as part of this project?
Then we have to raise the uncomfortable subject of tolls. The MOU and Project Definition both call for a tolled bridge, and the recent election seemed to indicate the province is now cold on the idea of bridge tolls. There is some time (this bridge will not be built until 2022 at the most ambitious rate) for the region’s Mayors to work up a regional road pricing scheme as envisioned in the 10-year plan, but that is something different than specific tolls on this bridge. As we have learned from recent experience, tolls significantly decrease demand for bridge infrastructure, so if this EA is based on traffic models based on toll aversion behavior of drivers, is that base assumption still valid? This is the type of thing we need clarity on right now.
Finally, there is an area of the EA where the cumulative impacts of multiple concurrent projects can enter into the assessment. The idea here is that one project may have a small, but acceptable impact on a valued part of the environment, but 10 similar projects on the same river will have a bigger impact. However, this is a transportation project, so cumulative impacts may be thought of in a different light. What impact will the (potential) cancelling of the Massey Bridge have on regional transportation (and the resultant traffic modelling?). Perhaps more important, what impact will SkyTrain/Light Rail in Surrey have on regional transportation patterns, and the assumptions feeding the transportation plan?
So that is long way of saying, if you care about the Pattullo Bridge and the impact its replacement will have on New Westminster, do a bit of reading here, and take the time to provide some comments to the EAO before the end of business on July 26. Then hold tight and wait until early 2018 when the full EA process starts.