Pattullo Bridge opened Nov. 15

Spectre of tolls may quash new Pattullo

Victoria eyes cheaper refit of existing bridge to keep it free

The aging Pattullo Bridge might be refurbished rather than rebuilt in order to save money and avoid a controversial decision to charge tolls on it.

Despite TransLink’s 2008 decision to build a new six-lane bridge, the provincial government has ordered a pause in design work while its own engineers consider whether a fix-up might suffice instead.

“The province wanted to come in and look at other options potentially for rehabilitating and expanding the existing structure, as opposed to building a new one,” said TransLink spokesman Ken Hardie, adding Victoria’s aim is to avoid tolls.

“Obviously if you can get a facility you don’t have to toll, that’s a good thing.”

TransLink has listed tolls as the only apparent way to pay for what it expected to be a $1-billion-plus project.

But potential tolls on the Pattullo have been a lightning rod for criticism from motorists and politicians, many of whom say it’s unfair to toll every bridge into Surrey.

Tolls on the Golden Ears, Port Mann and the Pattullo bridges would force drivers who want a free crossing of the Fraser River to detour south to the Alex Fraser Bridge.

Successive transportation ministers have pledged to explore non-tolled options.

Public meetings had been slated in New Westminster and Surrey last fall on how the new Pattullo would connect to area roads.

They were abruptly cancelled with little explanation, although Hardie said at the time there was “no question” a new bridge is needed.

He now says officials at the transportation ministry simply want to see if there’s any alternative that has been overlooked.

“They’ve got some pretty bright people at the Ministry of Transportation in the engineering side,” he said.

Hardie said the province also wants TransLink’s justification of the need for six lanes, which he said is in part to ensure efficient connections to the North and South Fraser Perimeter Roads.

Hardie said the public meetings will likely be rescheduled for June.

It’s not clear how many lanes a refurbished Pattullo might end up with.

The 73-year-old bridge is 12 metres wide, far tighter than the minimum 19-metre width for a four-lane bridge built to modern standards today.

Consultants Delcan advised the TransLink board three years ago against using the old bridge in any new configuration.

They considered turning it into a three-lane one-way bridge that would pair up with a new twin three-lane bridge going the other way.

But Delcan found that would cost more than simply building an all-new six-lane bridge, which would also have lower maintenance costs.

The existing Pattullo’s usable life could be extended at most 50 years, they added. TransLink has performed seismic upgrading on the existing bridge.

Previous studies looked at but panned various short-term fixes to make the bridge safer.

TransLink’s board ruled out building a median barrier to prevent head-on crashes because the barrier would add weight, requiring a ban on truck traffic – which the province opposed. The board also rejected a three-lane counterflow option.

Twenty-eight people have died in fatal crashes on the Pattullo or its approaches from 1986 to 2005, when TransLink began nightly centre-lane closures to reduce the risk.

One of them was Surrey stock car racer John Heida, whose friend Bob Behnke has made it a personal mission to campaign for a safer Pattullo.

“We’re talking about a bridge that’s close to 80 years old,” Behnke said, adding he prefers an all-new replacement unless it’s certain repairs can make the bridge safe for at least 50 more years.

“What I want to see is get going on it and build it,” Behnke said. “It’s been a lot of years since we lost John and nothing’s been done.”

The Mission resident said he understands Surrey drivers’ opposition to tolls, but added a 10- or 20-year “patch job” is unacceptable.

TransLink had talked of fast-tracking construction so the new bridge could open in 2015 or 2016. It was assumed a private partner would borrow the money, build the bridge and then be paid through tolls.

The new bridge is supposed to be built just upstream of the existing one.

A transportation ministry spokesman reached Monday was unable to answer questions on the government’s vision for the Pattullo except to say that any decisions related to the bridge would be made by TransLink.


PATTULLO TIMELINE

2002

February – An ICBC safety review of the bridge concludes motorists drive too fast, particularly over the dangerous curved section, and recommends pursuit of various measures, including centre lane closures in off-peak hours, a thin median barrier or a three-lane counterflow system, and fixed cameras targeting speeders.

2004

Aug. 22 –  Surrey resident John Heida dies when another vehicle crosses the bridge centre line and hits his car head-on. Friends launch a campaign for a safer bridge.

Oct. 24 – Sarfraz and Imran Khan, two brothers from Surrey, die when their car loses control and crosses the centre line, hitting an oncoming taxi.

Dec. 8 – TransLink directors vote to draw up preliminary designs for a median barrier.

2005

January – Two more people die and five are injured in a head-on crash linked to speed. TransLink chair Doug McCallum vows to have a median barrier in place within a year.

February 16 – TransLink board gives approval in principle to spend $5 million to build a centre barrier. The project is to be expedited and complete by year end.

July – TransLink directors are told the median can’t be in place before 2006 or even 2007 because bridge upgrades are needed first. A staff report warns putting a barrier on the bridge – which is already much narrower than national standards for new spans – will be difficult and risky. Directors vote to implement a series of temporary safety measures while upgrades and studies proceed.

August – Overnight closures of the centre lanes begin from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. in a bid to prevent late-night crashes, which had been responsible for nearly all deaths to that point. TransLink also cuts the speed limit to 50 km/h from 60 and installs flexible reflective posts down the centre line to try to keep drivers in their own lanes.

2006

January 2 – Four people from Surrey and Abbotsford die in a crash in the afternoon rush hour.

January – Province unveils Gateway program to twin Port Mann Bridge by 2013, leaving the Pattullo as free untolled alternative. TransLink officials fear Port Mann tolls will add traffic and danger on the Pattullo, particularly if the province erects signs on Highway 1 advertising the free route.

March 8 – Burnaby woman Janette Ong dies in a multi-car pile-up. TransLink officials say median barrier remains a year to 18 months away because rehabilitation work is needed before a barrier can be added to the deck.

April – Surrey City Council calls for installation of photo radar cameras on the Pattullo to slow motorists down. The proposal gets initial support from RCMP and transportation minister Kevin Falcon.

May – TransLink’s board votes in favour of installing automated cameras on the Pattullo. Solicitor General John Les rejects the idea, saying B.C. Liberals won’t reintroduce photo radar, which they scrapped to keep an election promise in 2001.

August – Two crashes on the bridge in four days – one fatal and both linked to speed –  prompt more questions and demands for action, including speed ticket cameras.

September – Premier Gordon Campbell said he believes policing, not cameras, is the best way to slow down motorists on the Pattullo.

October – A multi-agency study begins to examine future strategies to replace the Pattullo with a new bridge. Preliminary findings are expected sometime in 2007.

December – TransLink’s board approves spending more than $20 million to continue upgrade and rehabilitation work on the Knight and Pattullo bridges in 2007.

2007

April – A head-on crash on the bridge kills a New Westminster woman and injures a Surrey man. The death brings to 20 the number of fatalities on the bridge or its approaches since 1990.

Police officers from both Surrey and New Westminster call for introduction of automated cameras on the bridge, saying they would save lives. New West police say they are unable to stop speeders on their side because of safety concerns. Surrey RCMP ticketed 3,000 drivers in 2006 but high speeds persist.

2008

May – TransLink’s new appointed board rejects options for short-term fixes for the Pattullo, which include reducing it to three lanes with a counterflow system like the Lions Gate Bridge, or else keeping four lanes and installing a centre median. The four-lane option would require banning truck traffic – which the provincial government opposed. A TransLink report predicted a truck-free bridge with four narrower lanes wouldn’t mean any loss of capacity because more smaller vehicles would use it.

June – TransLink tries again to find a contractor that can remove the asbestos-contaminated asphalt on the bridge deck and repave it. A clear picture of how safe the concrete deck won’t emerge until the asphalt comes off.

July – Consultants advise against the use of the old Pattullo Bridge along with a new twin, saying it will be cheaper and more reliable for the long term to build an all-new six-lane bridge. A rehabilitated Pattullo would be good for at most 50 years.

TransLink’s CEO and board chair decide to build a new bridge – financed by tolls – and dismantle the existing one.

August – Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts says new toll bridges over the Fraser should include one untolled lane to provide a free alternative and avoid congestion from motorists diverting to the Alex Fraser.

2009

January – A fire in the wooden supports of the Pattullo’s Surrey on-ramp knocks the bridge out of service for two weeks.

January – Transportation Minister Kevin Falcon vows to look for ways to rebuild the Pattullo without tolling it. Falcon said he was relieved TransLink ended years of “dithering” and made the decision to build a new bridge.

May – Pattullo repaving and asbestos removal finally proceeds. Bridge deck deemed safe for further use.

2010

April – Transportation Minister Shirley Bond lists the Alex Fraser Bridge as the free alternative when the new tolled Port Mann Bridge opens in 2013. She downplays fears that means the Pattullo will be tolled, adding she, too, wants to keep it free. NDP calls a tolled Pattullo with the Alex Fraser as a free alternative unacceptable.

September – TransLink public meetings planned on new bridge approach designs are postponed indefinitely.

November – Mayor Watts says “fair tolling” – where bridges are tolled equally not in just one part of the region – should be among the new mechanisms for long-term financing of TransLink.

2011

February – TransLink says bridge design open houses are on hold because the province wants to re-examine alternatives to building a new bridge, which could avert the need for tolls.