Monday will be one of the most important days in the past 50 years in Surrey, because it will offer a pretty clear signal as to whether members of the public are willing to pay a toll to cross the Fraser River, or will flee the new Port Mann Bridge in droves when tolls kick in.
Monday is the first rush hour day that the bridge will be tolled. Tolls actually begin on Saturday, but the crush of traffic will come Monday morning when people head to work and school.
Why will it be historic? Primarily because the transportation patterns dictated by river crossings have been one of the most important factors shaping Surrey from its earliest days.
When Surrey and New Westminster were linked by ferry, Brownsville was important, because it was where people waited for the ferry. When the original Fraser River Bridge opened in 1904, it set the pattern for Surrey residents to do their shopping and sell their farm goods more easily, whether they travelled by horse and buggy, early-day car, or rail.
The most important local rail connection came through the B.C. Electric interurban, which began service in 1910 and established patterns for settlement in Kennedy, Newton, Sullivan and Cloverdale.
As roads improved and more people obtained cars, the need for a better bridge became obvious, and in 1937 the Pattullo Bridge opened. Known derisively as the “Pay-Toll-O” bridge, tolls did not stop people from moving to Surrey, particularly during the Second World War. While transit was an option with the interurban, most people drove and paid the tolls if they had enough gas to do so, at a time of gas rationing.
The experience with the Pattullo may be the most instructive when considering what will happen with the Port Mann. The Pattullo is still with us and is cited as the “free” alternative to the tolls. Together with the new South Fraser Perimeter Road, now known as Highway 17, it does offer an alternative.
When tolls came off the Pattullo in the early 1950s, Surrey began a sustained growth boom that has yet to stop. New bridges such as the Port Mann and Alex Fraser, which changed the face of North Delta immeasurably, simply added to the growth. The SkyTrain bridge, which opened when SkyTrain came to Surrey in 1989, was another key shaper of transportation patterns.
The transportation patterns established when the Port Mann and Highway 1 opened in 1964 made a dramatic change to areas such as Guildford, which did not exist under that name at the time. Fraser Heights, Port Kells, Fleetwood, Clayton and Cloverdale developed and changed as a direct result of the Port Mann opening.
Now it’s 2012. Surrey is a huge city and is growing at the rate of about 1,000 people a month.
The new widened freeway and Port Mann are a breeze to travel. But with a $3 toll rate when the entire project is done, it will exact a steep price from regular travellers.
Will more Surrey residents go to the Pattullo, Alex Fraser or George Massey crossings? Will they look for work on this side of the river? Will they shop locally instead of across the river? How will this affect transit services, housing growth and densities?
All these questions remain unanswered, but on Monday, we may begin to get a glimpse of the future.
Frank Bucholtz is the editor of The Langley Times. He writes weekly for The Leader.