Sunbury Neighbourhood Association

Vancouver sun - all Roads lead to More debate

By William Boei and Scott Simpson, Vancouver Sun

Published: Saturday, February 04, 2006

Gateway program means traffic issues will be ripe for picking again as 2009 provincial election starts.

If you've been thinking we can stop worrying about traffic now, that we can just build those highways and twin that bridge and it's clear sailing into a congestion-free future, please sit down. We need to talk.

First, if we go that way, if we build the $3-billion Gateway program, that won't be the end of it. There are wish lists as long as your arm for transit, road, bridge, rail and marine transportation projects that together will cost much more than Gateway.

Second, the debate is just beginning about whether Gateway-style, large-scale road-building is needed. Some transportation experts are shaking their heads and saying it is a return to the freeway-building madness of the 1950s and 1960s.

Others say it's about time somebody did something, and more road space is just what's needed.

With two to three years of consultations and planning ahead and the bulk of construction pencilled in for 2009 through 2013, this issue should be just about ripe for picking when the 2009 provincial election campaign gets going.

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Freeways -- to build them or not -- are the story of modern Vancouver. In the 1950s and 1960s we didn't build them and we escaped the traffic congestion that now chokes many of the cities that did. Some of those cities are tearing down their freeways, trying to become more livable, and using freeway-free Vancouver as their model.

But there's more to Greater Vancouver than the precious beaches and gleaming towers of the famous downtown peninsula.

There's the growing international trade moving through the ports, and the people who run them are clamouring for more roads for the big trucks that carry the containers.

And there are the exasperated residents of the region's eastern suburbs, especially south of the Fraser, where traffic congestion is bad and getting worse, and the lack of freeway space seems like the obvious culprit.

For many of them, the Gateway program -- twinning the Port Mann Bridge, widening the Trans-Canada Highway, building a new truck route along the south shore of the Fraser River and piecing together another truck route on the river's north shore, complete with a new Pitt River Bridge -- is a gift from heaven.

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Bob Wilds, for one, is pretty happy this week.

Wilds is the long-time director of the Greater Vancouver Gateway Council, which represents the ports and other major transportation industries.

For many years, the council has been pestering governments for more infrastructure -- especially road, bridge and rail -- to move the goods that enter our ports to destinations all over North America.

His is no longer a voice in the wilderness. The provincial Liberal government has embraced trade and transportation as the core of its economic vision, the federal government has jumped on board, and Wilds is pleased.

"The Gateway program that was just announced is pretty much in line with the projects that we had identified," he said.

"Our list of projects included the RAV Line, the Trans-Canada Highway, the Port Mann, south and north Fraser perimeter roads, the Pitt River Bridge, the Golden Ears Bridge. Those are all key projects in our priority list that had to be addressed for the goods-movement sector and tourism."

There will be demands for more. The new truck route south of the Fraser will have to connect to Richmond and its fast-growing industrial parks, and to Highway 99.

Once 99 is tied into the new truck route, there will be pressure to expand or replace another bottleneck: the Massey Tunnel. That will encourage more traffic to and from Vancouver and we'll need a bigger bridge at Oak Street or Knight Street or both.

Wilds said we may also want to tie the highway network to "short sea-shipping" terminals, so containers can be moved by barge from deep-sea terminals to points along the Fraser River, where they can be loaded on to trucks.

"We've got to think of this as multi-modal," he said. "It's not all road."

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Things will change in the northwest corner of Greater Vancouver too, where West Vancouver has fought a losing battle against the province's expansion of the northern portion of Highway 99, the Sea to Sky Highway to Whistler.

Former Vancouver councillor Gordon Price, now a lecturer on urban planning, notes the expanded corridor from West Van to Whistler is about to experience a tourism and development boom, generating more traffic -- much more, perhaps -- through West Vancouver.

Much of it will head for the Lions Gate Bridge and downtown Vancouver, which means West Vancouverites will spend even more time fighting for their share of the congested road space on Taylor Way and Marine Drive.

That may have implications for the three-lane Lions Gate, which Vancouver planners have deliberately used as a traffic management tool to limit the number of vehicles entering the downtown.

Look for another third-crossing debate to break out before long.

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Rail infrastructure also will need upgrading.

CN and CP announced a deal just a week ago to handle train movement through the region cooperatively, and that's one of the ways to increase the volume of containers streaming out of the ports.

But some new construction will be needed, to keep the trains rolling and to aid road traffic on either side of the tracks.

"There's additional sidings required if we are to achieve the level of throughput ... to just meet the tremendous growth to and from Asia," Wilds said.

All along the rail line from Deltaport through the Fraser Valley, there is pressure to build overpasses and underpasses. North-south road traffic stops dead when trains pass level crossings, and the trains will be longer and more frequent.

Overpass construction has begun at 204th Street in Langley and there will be others.

"We are going to participate in a comprehensive study of that entire rail line out to Deltaport from Mission," Wilds said, "that's going to look at all of the level-crossing issues."

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The Gateway Council now has much of what it wanted, at least on paper.

"I think there is now general agreement between ourselves, the regional transportation authority, the province and the federal government," Wilds said.

"The real question is funding, and getting the public to understand the need to have these done."

He readily agrees public transit is part of the picture and that highway commuters have to be considered. But that's not the Gateway Council's job.

"Our proposal for this is really addressed around the need for commercial goods and tourism, not for the single-occupant vehicle," Wilds said.

What happens to commuters is the concern of the regional district, which sets planning goals for the region, and of TransLink, which tries to fill road and transit needs within the region's plans.

But the Gateway Program means a huge shove for both bodies in directions they don't necessarily want to go, and it catches them off-balance with new boards of directors that haven't yet plotted a route into the future.

TransLink appears the more likely of the two bodies to be onside with the provincial plan. Its new chairman, Malcolm Brodie, is the mayor of Richmond, which is getting the Canada rapid transit line and has more often than not been allied with Surrey, which badly wants the Gateway project to ease its traffic woes.

New regional district chairwoman Lois Jackson, the mayor of Delta, has a difficult task. The number one priority for her new board this year is to shape the successor to the Livable Region Strategic Plan, some of whose major goals -- compact development concentrated in designated town centres -- have been eroded by actual development patterns and which may take a body blow from the Gateway Program, which is expected to encourage development along the highway corridor and into the valley.

The GVRD's main choices appear to be to hold on to its growth principles, which may mean political fights with the province and with some of its member municipalities; and doing a significant about-face on its regional vision.

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The Fraser River Port Authority is not worried that increasing commuter traffic will develop into a significant obstacle to the flow of goods through the region.

A bigger concern, says port spokesman Mark Erdman, is that municipalities may compromise the intent of Gateway by failing to preserve for industry the land adjacent to the new routes.

The authority has been involved in planning for the south Fraser perimeter road -- in fact, Erdman notes, the government cannot put the road through Delta without passing through the port's property.

"We certainly are in favour of seeing that truck route developed as a limited access thoroughfare so that it does not become just a street with an intersection every two blocks."

However, the port does not advocate truck-only lanes along any of the new routes -- a policy some European nations have already adopted -- because that could lead to "some resentment" among commuters.

"You've got to have community buy-in to these things."

A more pressing concern is a proposal by a developer to turn the former Fraser Mills site along the river in Coquitlam into a 3,700-unit housing subdivision -- right inside the north Fraser perimeter road route.

"A study I saw just a week ago said the region is down to about a 15-year supply of industrial land and the majority of that is in central Surrey -- without any water access," Erdman said. "There is a lot of industrial development that needs access to the river."

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Commuters who expect a return to the open roads of years past will be disappointed, says Victoria transportation engineer Todd Litman.

"We're never going to get that again unless there is a terrible pandemic that kills off 30 per cent of the population, and then we'll have a whole different set of problems," Litman said.

"There are no free roads. There is no free parking. It's a question of whether you pay directly or indirectly."

Litman and others warn that we will get tolls no matter what, and it may not stop with a twinned Port Mann Bridge.

With new road space and no tolls, new traffic will expand to fill up the space available, the experts say. That's how it worked everywhere else. The road will soon be as congested as before, but on a larger scale.

Transportation Minister Kevin Falcon and Premier Gordon Campbell admitted as much this week when they said tolls may be a necessary part of Gateway. Falcon said that without tolls, the Highway 1 corridor will be congested again in five to 10 years.

Price snickers at that. "I give it about five minutes. Okay, five hours."

With tolls, Falcon said the expanded corridor will suffice for 25 years.

Price thinks now that the door is open to tolling, it will soon open wider. The government policy of tolling only when there is a free alternative route is hanging by a thread, he argues, because the free alternative to the Port Mann will be the Pattullo Bridge, which is already way too congested, over-aged, narrow-laned and dangerous.

Price says there are two ways to control congestion, and building more roads isn't one of them. Falcon has acknowledged that you can't build your way out of congestion, but is proposing to build more roads.

"You can't say both things at the same time, but they are," Price said.

"That tells you that they are just about at the end of the dream world we've been living in since the 1950s."

The two ways that work, he said, are system-wide tolls to keep traffic down, and congestion itself, which will dictate upper limits to traffic volumes by the degree of delay and discomfort it inflicts on drivers.

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Most experts say tolls and congestion charges and well-placed transit investments that give commuters choices -- among other measures -- are the best way to keep traffic volumes down and create space for goods movement.

Warren Gill, an urban geographer at Simon Fraser University, says tolls are the only way to prevent Gateway from creating a new flood of commuter traffic, and the province may have to get tougher with municipalities whose land-use decisions encourage more people to drive.

"We've got to get away from thinking that the roads are a free good. They're not," Gill said.

If the new truck routes are clogged by commuters, "then they will fail because we won't gain what we want to do, which is to support the efficient movement of goods into and out of the region."

"We will fail entirely with this if the municipalities to the north and south of the river opt to zone more land for office parks, for single-family cul-de-sac neighbourhoods that are not served by transit. If we do that, then it's a failure."

Peter Boothroyd, a University of B.C. development planner, said the province is touting a "magic bullet" approach to managing congestion that effectively creates more room for traffic to expand into: "the same magic bullet that has been used many times before and hasn't killed the beast."

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Falcon is touting the rapid transit lines his government is helping to finance as complementary projects to the Gateway road and bridge expansion.

But UBC urban transportation professor Lawrence Frank says that's what Atlanta, Ga., tried to do with massive investments in the 1980s and 1990s in both road expansion and rapid transit.

"You kind of end up trying to serve two masters," he said. "It results in conflicting land use policies and responses.

"So in a given corridor if you put down a lot of highway capacity, the land use patterns will be highway-oriented, auto-oriented. Then you try to get people to move on transit in that same developing area -- like the Gateway corridor -- and it's very difficult, because the land use isn't conducive to access to transit, to rail, and transit is ineffective.

"I think you can end up kind of shooting yourself in the foot.

"The signal is on one hand, we want to minimize automobile dependence to achieve all these other aspirations of a sustainable and a healthy, livable region. And then we go and build a tremendous amount of road and highway capacity that results in development decisions -- at least it has everywhere else -- that are oriented towards the highway and are completely auto-dependent."

Frank thinks the combined effect of the Highway 1 and Sea to Sky projects may be irreversible impacts on the nature of the region, "and we will end up much more auto-dependent, a lot more angry commuters in cars who want much more highway expansion."

He suggests we back away from making far-reaching choices until there has been a public planning process that looks at what kind of region we want, and the best ways to achieve it.

"Do we want to be known as a model of a sustainable region that actually demonstrates that economic and environmental interests can be brought into balance?

"Vancouver has the opportunity to demonstrate to the world that it can be done. We're already off to a good start. And what we haven't done is build a lot of roads."

bboei@png.canwest.com

ssimpson@png.canwest.com

FIVE TO PONDER

Here are five of the major projects sought by agencies around the region including TransLink, Gateway council and municipal governments:

UBC RAPID TRANSIT

A westerly extension of Millennium SkyTrain line now ending at Broadway and Clark Drive. Vancouver council prefers $700-million-plus underground SkyTrain extension to Granville Street, with rapid bus service to UBC.

EVERGREEN LINE EXTENSION

Light rail rapid transit line running at ground level to link Coquitlam Centre to Lougheed Mall Skytrain via Barnet Highway and Port Moody. A Translink project with an estimated cost of $800 million, expected to be in service by December 2009.

GOLDEN EARS BRIDGE

TransLink is building an $800 million, six-lane toll bridge across the Fraser River between Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows and Langley. The bridge will open in 2009, saving 20 to 30 minutes compared to a trip on Albion ferry -- at a price approaching $3 per crossing.

SECOND NARROWS EXPANSION

District of North Vancouver has sought $400 million in federal infrastructure funding towards upgrades on the jam-packed Ironworkers Memorial Bridge, seeking relief for transit users. Council envisioned a bridge widening project that would facilitate installation of priority lanes for buses.

MASSEY TUNNEL IMPROVEMENTS

Gateway council advocates $700 million for Highway 99 corridor at Massey Tunnel crossing of Fraser River, a major choke point. Two extra lanes under river and extension of HOV lanes from King George Highway to Westminster Highway are sought.

 The Vancouver Sun 2006

 

 

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