Commuters will soon find out if the new Port Mann Bridge ends their gridlock gripes or simply moves Metro Vancouver’s biggest traffic bottleneck further down the highway and onto untolled crossings.
The new bridge officially opens with eight lanes on Saturday Dec. 1 and half-price tolls of $1.50 for regular cars will kick in a week later on Dec. 8.
The transportation ministry estimates the new bridge will cut commute times 50 per cent and save some drivers an hour a day.
But the full 10 lanes on the bridge and on the widened Highway 1 through Vancouver and Burnaby won’t be open until late in 2013 because construction is continuing on much of the corridor.
And some critics say even when the full project is complete, traffic heading to those cities will hit heavy volume at the off-ramps, backing traffic up onto the freeway.
“My prediction is congestion,” Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan said. “The pinch point will just be moved.”
He said Burnaby, New Westminster and Vancouver are all refusing to free up more road capacity in response – by eliminating parking lanes, for example.
“The highway is the access point and if that’s where people end up having to sit, that’s where they have to sit.”
But Port Mann/Highway 1 project spokesman Max Logan said much of the westbound bridge traffic exits at Cape Horn or Brunette Avenue.
“We’re not expecting anything significant in terms of a pinch point or traffic bottleneck,” he said, adding drivers should see similar conditions they now see west of Brunette, until the entire $3.3-billion project is finished in late 2013.
It’s a different story east of the bridge.
By Dec. 1, there will be four lanes open in each direction running from Brunette over the bridge as far east as 200 Street in Langley – a doubling of highway capacity through Surrey.
One of the four lanes each way will be for HOV users, adding 20 kilometres where car pools and other vehicles with at least two occupants can bypass congestion. Registered HOV lane users also get a 25 per cent discount at peak times.
Drivers who don’t want to pay a toll will be directed over the Pattullo Bridge, via the South Fraser Perimeter Road, which partly opens Dec. 1.
NDP transportation critic Harry Bains predicts heavy congestion at that crossing and in feeder routes in Surrey and New Westminster as a result.
“That is going to be a huge concern,” Bains said. “The Pattullo is dangerous and over capacity.”
TransLink has also warned seismic and other safety risks could force the Pattullo to shut down before its 2020 target date for replacement.
Logan said he expects some drivers will shift to the Pattullo – at least initially.
“Come Dec. 8, once tolling begins, we may see some drivers gravitate to the untolled alternative,” he said. “We’re expecting drivers are going to test out the alternatives that are available to them and make the choice of the one that makes most sense to them.”
Logan said some drivers may have been avoiding the Port Mann and Highway 1 because of construction delays and will now come back to it.
“We expect the Port Mann will be the crossing of choice because it’s going to be just so much faster and more efficient than it is now.”
Crews have been phasing in use of the new span in stages.
Eastbound traffic has already been going over the new bridge since September and westbound traffic will switch over to two lanes on the new bridge on Nov. 17.
The final lanes to be opened on the new bridge in late 2013 will be for local traffic only. They’ll allow drivers heading between Surrey and Coquitlam to travel on separate lanes without having to merge with the rest of the freeway traffic to cross the bridge.
Another change will see TransLink launch the Highway 1 RapidBus service over the Port Mann on Dec. 1.
It will run between the Carvolth park-and-ride in northwest Langley and Braid Street SkyTrain station in New Westminster – every 10 minutes at peak times and every 30 off peak.
But Bains said he’s concerned passengers will be stranded in Langley because TransLink’s planned service level may not meet demand.
With six buses an hour leaving Carvolth, he said, there will only be capacity for 350 passengers an hour at peak periods and less at off-peak times.
“We’re trying to work within our means,” TransLink spokesman Drew Snider said. “For now, this is what we are able to provide.”