Motorists will likely get a new tolled Pattullo Bridge regardless of whether Metro Vancouver residents approve a referendum on new taxes for TransLink next year.
The billion-dollar replacement of the aging Pattullo is part of the mayors’ council vision for $7.5 billion in transportation upgrades released in June and was expected to offer a reason to vote ‘yes’ for residents who drive and care little about transit.
But senior TransLink executive Bob Paddon on Thursday insisted the bridge replacement must proceed even if the referendum is defeated.
“Regardless of the outcome of the referendum, we need to get this finished,” Paddon said, explaining the new bridge can be paid for with tolls and isn’t dependent on a ‘yes’ vote.
The executive vice president for strategic planning and public affairs went on to say TransLink has ruled out a major $300-million rehabilitation of the bridge – which would have shrunk it to three lanes and made it safer to use for another 20 to 30 years.
Instead, he said, a $100-million bare-bones deck replacement and seismic upgrade would go ahead, starting early in 2015, while planning proceeds to build a replacement four-lane bridge, expandable to six, that would open in 2023.
The referendum question has not yet been determined but Paddon said the bridge replacement doesn’t need to be part of it because “this is a tolled facility that generates its own revenue, so it can go on its own merits.”
TransLink has the legal authority to impose specific bridge tolls, as it did when it built the Golden Ears Bridge.
Following the first interview, Paddon called back to clarify that a final decision on rebuilding the Patttullo wouldn’t come until late 2015, after the referendum result.
He also said a ‘no’ vote would raise some questions about the financing of the project.
Paddon said a new tolled Pattullo would face a similar shortfall in tolls generated in its early years as has been experienced at the so-far-underused Golden Ears Bridge, requiring a front-end subsidy of about $90 million that is currently assumed to be covered through referendum-approved taxes.
“We have a consensus now to replace the bridge,” Paddon said of discussions between the mayors earlier this year. “But that gap of $90 million would have to be figured out before there’s an absolute go on replacement.”
That estimate was calculated based on an assumed initial toll of $3 per crossing, although Paddon said that was tentative and could change, particularly if a new road pricing model for reformed tolling is developed before the new Pattullo opens.
He said TransLink’s modeling suggests Pattullo use would drop after tolls are imposed on the new crossing from about 80,000 crossings a day now to less than 60,000. Travel times would also decrease an estimated 15 per cent.
Metro Vancouver board chair Greg Moore said he was surprised by Paddon’s statements that the Pattullo can proceed without referendum approval.
Moore said it “took a lot of work” for mayors to reach agreement on the Pattullo replacement as part of a fully integrated transportation plan.
“If you just build a bridge and not build a better transit system south of the Fraser, you’re not building out the overall plan and not achieving the goals in the plan,” Moore said.
Asked if he’s concerned motorists will vote against the referendum if they can get the new bridge without also paying higher taxes for transit, Moore said he wasn’t sure.
“It’s the overall vision and pieces of the plan that are important for the ‘yes’ outcome,” Moore said. “If you start to take parts out of the plan, it could affect why someone might vote a certain way within the referendum.”
Mayors council chair Richard Walton said he understands TransLink’s determination to replace the bridge.
“Ultimately there’s a safety issue because the bridge is no longer sound,” he said.
TransLink has been warned the 76-year-old Pattullo Bridge is at risk of being knocked out of service by a moderate earthquake or a ship collision.
Premier Christy Clark was asked Thursday at an appearance before the Vancouver Board of Trade if the province will campaign for a ‘yes’ result in the referendum and responded that the government will “let mayors lead this.”
Walton said he remains convinced that the referendum will have the best chance of success with the broadest possible coalition – one that includes the premier and transportation minister.
“We want them to take more than a passive role and we’re going to continue to press them to take an active, positive role.”