Eight new bridge lanes by the end of 2012

Rising 160 metres above the Fraser River, the twin towers ­supporting the new cable-stayed 2,020-metre-long, 10-lane Port Mann Bridge will soon replace the heavily congested five-lane structure built in 1964 as four lanes. Eight of the new crossing’s 10 lanes will open at the end of 2012, a year before schedule, with all 10 lanes operational a year later.

The bridge is the most visible symbol of the province’s multi-project Gateway Program, the government’s answer to congestion and related transportation problems in Metro ­Vancouver. Max Logan, Gateway spokes­person, says, “Highway im­provements include widening app­­rox­imately 37 kilometres of Highway 1 and seven highway over­­passes. In addition, we’re replacing nine highway interchanges, and creating five special-purpose truck/transit ramps. At the Cape Horn Interchange alone, the number of overpasses and ­underpasses will have grown from four to 15.”

The controversial Gateway Program is designed to improve access between port facilities, industrial areas, railways, the airport, and border crossings. It also responds to critics’ complaints of ‘roads over transit’ as the new Port Mann Bridge includes separate pedestrian and cycling lanes, and prioritizes public transit with rapid bus lanes on the bridge, and added park-and-ride facilities and new transit loops along Highway 1.

A second component of the Gateway Program, the South Fraser Perimeter Road Project, on the south shore of the river, is on schedule for completion in late 2013. Replacing streets clogged with transport trucks, residential traffic and commuters, this new four-lane 80 km/hr route will improve access to major riverside port facilities, industrial and commercial areas, while reducing east-west travel times for heavy trucks by providing a continuous highway along the Fraser’s south shore. The new highway will connect Port Metro Vancouver’s Deltaport to major routes, both east to Highway 1 and the Golden Ears Bridge, and south to Highway 99 to the U.S. border.

Congestion adds $500 million annually to Vancouver goods ­movements

Announced in January 2006 by then-Premier Gordon Campbell, the Gateway Program infuriated re­gional governments and stirred angry responses within planning, environmental and anti-growth circles. The $3.3-billion program still generates passion and disagreement six years after it was announced, and less than a year before its first elements open.

One of the voices warning against the program at the outset remains unmoved today. Gordon Price, former Vancouver city councillor, now Director of the City Program at Simon Fraser University, says, “The Port Mann / Highway 1 widening is completely about roads. There’s nothing balanced about it, nothing in the budget for rail, in fact, no plans for rail, only the vague suggestion that at some time in the future, the bridge may make room for rail.” He continues, saying the widened bridge and highway will catalyze auto- and truck-dependent development throughout the eastern Fraser Valley before rail ever shows up, making it considerably more expensive, if not futile, to introduce rail at a later date.

What isn’t vague are the choked roadways, bridges and streets of Metro Vancouver, the result of unprecedented growth and lack of political will to invest in significant pan-regional transportation improvements for nearly 20 years. As the federal government was increasing its focus on B.C. as Canada’s Asia Pacific Gateway, commuters and goods movers in Metro Vancouver were calling for relief from endless bottlenecks, crashes, lost time and 13-hour ‘rush hours’ on the main east-west arterial in and out of Vancouver, Highway 1 and its Port Mann Bridge crossing the Fraser River.

The B.C. trucking industry reported that goods movers were stopped or slowed 75 per cent of the time in the Metro Vancouver region, adding up to $500 million a year in costs. Transport Canada estimated the effects of all traffic congestion at $1.5 billion a year, with much of that cost being passed on to consumers. The projections of further population increases over the next 25 years had planners shaking their heads in disbelief; the 2011 census reported population increases of 18.6 per cent in Surrey, while New Westminster’s population rose by 12.7 per cent from the 2006 census.

The Gateway Program’s Project Definition Report, issued in January 2006, reaffirmed what commuters and truckers knew: Traffic volumes had increased on all the regions’ major roads and the water crossings of the Fraser and Pitt Rivers. The Port Mann Bridge has the highest daily crossing volumes in the region. Opened in 1964, the Port Mann Bridge now carries 127,000 vehicles per day, a 65 per cent increase over the 77,000 vehicles in 1985.

Vehicle registration in Metro Vancouver grew 12.5 per cent over five years, which is greater than the population growth during the same period. The swelling number of cars represents an increase of approximately 3.25 vehicles every hour. Vehicle trip times have increased across the region by an average of 30 per cent, even though trip length has remained constant over the past 10 years.

Port Metro Vancouver grows south of the Fraser

Port Metro Vancouver (PMV), the fourth-largest tonnage port in North America, along with its industry partners and the federal government, are making supply chain improvements at Roberts Bank and along the Roberts Bank Rail Corridor. Roberts Bank is a twin-terminal port facility, containing Westshore Terminals, with an annual export capacity of 29 million tonnes of coal, and Deltaport, the largest container terminal in Canada. The facility is located on Georgia Strait some 40 minutes south of Vancouver. Built at the end of a long causeway, the site was originally a 20-hectare pod that extended into the strait, but it is now four times that size. In January 2010, Port Metro Vancouver added a third berth at Deltaport, doubling its capacity.

The port’s container facilities can currently handle approximately 3.5 million TEUs (twenty-foot equivalent units), but with projected container growth doubling over the next 10 to15 years and nearly tripling by 2030, the port will require up to four million TEUs of additional capacity. PMV is in preliminary analysis of Roberts Bank Terminal 2. Public consultation is set to begin this fall. If built as conceived, this project will be a multi-berth marine container terminal with potential additional capacity of more than two million TEUs per year.

Connecting Deltaport and Westshore Terminals to the North American rail network is the Roberts Bank Rail Corridor, a 70-kilometre rail line. Currently, up to 18 trains per day, ranging from 6,000 to 9,500 feet in length, use the corridor, with volume projected to rise to between 28 and 38 trains per day by 2021, and some train lengths expanding to 12,000 feet. Of the import containers that come in to PMV, nearly 60 per cent are shipped elsewhere in Canada, and 10 per cent are shipped to the United States. All go by rail.

Reducing road and rail conflicts

The corridor has about 66 road-rail crossings. Of these, 12 are overpasses, 38 are public street-level crossings, and 16 are private street-level crossings. The rail line runs through commercial agricultural lands where about 388,000 vehicles or farm vehicles daily cross the tracks, estimated to increase to 560,000 vehicles per day by 2021.  As well as eliminating level crossings, the $300-million undertaking will add rail siding capacity and will reduce the use of train whistles.

The new rail overpass construction, although separate from the South Fraser Perimeter Road, dovetails with the construction of the new highway, making the separate projects seem integrated. The new overpasses are constructed along the rail corridor across the commercial agricultural lands, while construction of the new South Fraser Perimeter Road ties them together. When complete by 2013, the highway will improve connections with Deltaport, feeding goods movers to Highway 99 South to the U.S. border or east, past the heavy concentration of industrial and port facilities along the south shore of the Fraser River and on to Highway 1, the Trans-Canada Highway. The South Fraser Perimeter Road is expected to reduce delay and congestion on Highway 99 North as it passes under the Fraser River at the Deas Island Tunnel to Vancouver.

Building prosperity or merely a temporary fix?

Clearly there is no universal answer to traffic congestion. Proposed and being built as the B.C. Government’s response to the congestion on Metro Vancouver’s roads and bridges, the Gateway Program will undoubtedly reduce congestion in the short term. Further tolls and various forms of road pricing will likely be required to offer relief from predicted future congestion. The Port Mann / Highway 1 project is budgeted at $3.3 billion, with the new Port Mann Bridge costing $775 million of that. The crossing will be tolled, to pay for the cost of building the bridge as well as the associated highway improvements from Langley to Vancouver.

The province has kept its commitment to alternative transportation by providing substantial funding through the Gateway Program to municipalities for improvements to local cycling networks, implemented congestion-reducing measures such as high occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes, brought transit access to a once-clogged river crossing and implemented transit and commercial vehicle priority measures.

In Rethinking Traffic Congestion by Brian D. Taylor, Professor of Urban Planning; Director, Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies; Director, Institute of Transportation Studies at UCLA, he states: “Cities exist because they promote social interactions and economic transactions. Traffic congestion occurs where lots of people pursue these ends simultaneously in limited spaces. Culturally and economically vibrant cities have the worst congestion problems, while declining and depressed cities don’t have much traffic.”

Gordon Price remains sceptical. “I get annoyed by highway planners and advocates who ignore, discount or wash their hands of the consequences of their projects, especially when the evidence is so obvious. Highways generate car-dependent urban form, which then produces the congestion that the highways and arterials were meant to address. It’s a self-defeating cycle they seem not to acknowledge.”