BOOTH: Surrey, New Westminster’s chestbeating over Pattullo Bridge rings hollow

I love nature documentaries – you know, the shows that film animals in the wild, behaving normally in their environment without the electric fences, moats, glass windows and concrete walls that zoos erect in the name of giving visitors a "natural setting" in which to view the animals.

There’s been a really cool drama unfolding in the last couple of months and I think it’s all about neighbouring silverback gorillas defending their territory on opposite sides of a river.

You see, there’s this bridge and both bands of gorillas want control over it. So the beasts take turns beating their chests and panthooting and making mock charges at their opponents in an effort to impose their will over the precious span.

Meanwhile, the other gorillas in the area watch from afar, enjoying the spectacle while hoping the blowhards can settle this dispute so the rest of the population can get on with the business of living along the river.

It’s so lifelike that it took me a couple of weeks of watching before I realized I wasn’t tuned into a nature channel offering about gorillas. I was actually watching the news and the silverbacks were just politicians from Surrey and New Westminster arguing over the replacement of the Pattullo Bridge.

TransLink announced its intentions for replacing the Pattullo in 2008, but it’s only recently that the gorillas – sorry, politicians – have become noticeably active. There is a municipal election looming in November and as a result, the chest thumping and pant-hoots have reached ear-splitting levels on both sides of the river.

New Westminster wants a four-lane bridge; Surrey wants six lanes.

Surrey is opposed to tolling the new span; New Westminster has no problem with paying as you cross.

New Westminster wants to ban heavy trucks from the route; Surrey believes traffic is traffic no matter what size.

New West is concerned about increased traffic through residential areas; Surrey says "What the heck, it’s Bridgeview. The people there live with auto wreckers, salvage companies and other industrial enterprises. The extra noise won’t be noticed."

The truth is, a new span crossing the Fraser River between New West and Surrey is long overdue. The Pattullo Bridge was opened in 1937 to handle traffic of that era, not the daily crush of vehicles it copes with.

Statistics show the current bridge handles 67,000 cars and 3,400 trucks each and every weekday, traffic that accounts for 20 per cent of all vehicles crossing the Fraser River.

The problem is the cities of New Westminster and Surrey have two vastly differing agendas regarding a new span. Most New West residents don’t use the bridge for commuting, as Vancouver is the more likely destination for trips to work. As such, trips over the Pattullo are for day excursions to the United States or into Surrey and Langley for other business and activities.

So for New West politicians, demands limiting the lanes on a new bridge, banning big trucks and hitting drivers with tolls are all matters that will have minimum impact on city residents.

On the other side of the Fraser, the Pattullo Bridge is a much more critical link for Surrey residents. The bridge is an essential crossing for commuters as well as those driving north to link up with the Trans Canada Highway.

And now with the addition of the new South Fraser Perimeter Road, drivers from Ladner, Richmond and Tsawwassen are also making use of the Pattullo for quick access to New West, Coquitlam, Burnaby and beyond.

As such, Surrey politicians are easily agitated when the subject of the Pattullo Bridge arises. While New West officials can casually insist that TransLink must bring them a shrubbery as a tribute, Surrey’s leaders know how much of an impact any of their northern neighbour’s demands will have on the electorate on the south banks of the Fraser.

And so we’re back to the gorillas posturing on the banks of the river in an effort to win the support of their respective populations. Both sets of silverbacks are preaching to a choir with neither side moving any closer to their goal of solving the problem of replacing the bridge.

The obvious solution to this standoff is for the provincial government to take ownership of the mess. Victoria built the Pattullo Bridge in the 1930s and maintained it for decades before offloading responsibility for the span onto TransLink.

The provincial government is currently planning the replacement of the Massey Tunnel linking Richmond and Delta, so why can’t the Liberals under Christy Clark take ownership of the Pattullo as well? Same river, same issues, right? Oh wait, here comes another band of gorillas to the party. It seems the dominant species of great ape in New West and the northern reaches/ridings of Surrey are all socialists, a completely different species from the gorillas running loose in the verdant forests of Victoria…

Michael Booth can be reached at mbooth@thenownewspaper.com

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