COLUMN: Propping up the Pattullo

Closures seem out of step amid the larger regional transportation plan.

On May 28, TransLink announced that the Pattullo Bridge would be closed for about a year-and-a-half, starting in mid-2016.

The closure is not a 24-hour-a-day closure – but it’s very close to it. It will be down to one lane each way during the day and it will be closed every night and every weekend. Trucks will be banned completely.

This closure is being done because TransLink wants to spend $100 million to shore up the decaying bridge. The repairs are expected to allow it to last a few more years until it is replaced by a new toll bridge, which will almost certainly be built, no matter how voters weigh in on an extra .05-per-cent sales tax.

TransLink states it is a vital traffic artery and must be refurbished, even to stay open for a temporary period. It is expected to take eight years to replace it, says Fred Cummings of TransLink. Its original life span was 50 years – it is now 28 years past that “best before” date.

The timing of this announcement is curious. Replacing the bridge is part of the transportation plan that most mayors approved. The voting deadline for the sales tax proposal, to pay for that plan, was last Friday – the day after the announcement.

Some people have suggested that the $100 million would be best put aside for the new bridge and the Pattullo should simply be closed. It sounds like a radical idea, but the alternative – a tolled Port Mann bridge – is in place and badly under-utilized. By 2016, all the approaches along the improved Highway 1 should finally be completed.

The political problem, of course, is the tolls. That problem is a thorny one. Many people have switched to the Pattullo because of the tolls. There is no question that a large number of truckers use the Pattullo more frequently because of tolls.

The Pattullo was promised as a free alternative by then-Transportation Minister Kevin Falcon, when the Port Mann project was announced. That was almost 10 years ago. Does the Pattullo need to stay in place simply to keep a political promise?

It will ultimately be up to the B.C. Liberal government if it wants to reduce the tolls on the Port Mann, and it is entirely possible that it is holding that plan in reserve, waiting for the next provincial election to draw a little closer.

A reduction to $2 a crossing in time for the Pattullo closure would be popular, and would likely solve most of the problems caused by the Pattullo closure.

It seems best to do things in this order:

1. Await the results of the transit referendum. They will be announced by the end of June. In the meantime, do not sign a contract for Pattullo repair work.

2. Ask the province to reduce the Port Mann tolls, at least while the Pattullo is closed or restricted.

3. Make a decision on whether or not to close the Pattullo completely for repairs, or to simply demolish it. If demolition is the choice, get started on it as soon as the Highway 1 project is finished and a contract for a new bridge has been signed.

4. Build a new Pattullo Bridge. Keep the name, which is historic. The bridge is the only public structure in B.C. commemorating Premier T.D. Pattullo, who was premier for more than eight years during the depth of the Depression years. The original bridge was part of his plan to create more jobs at that desperate time.

5. Look more closely at a tolling and a road-pricing system throughout the region, so that the burden of building new infrastructure and maintaining what we have is spread evenly around the region to all highway and bridge users.

Frank Bucholtz is the editor of The Langley Times. He writes weekly for The Leader.

 

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