If the Alex Fraser Bridge becomes Metro Vancouver’s last free crossing of the Fraser River as bridge tolls proliferate, Highway 91 drivers fear they will face gridlock beyond comprehension.
And some of them won’t have a choice.
Cloverdale mom Heather Bannah works as a lab assistant on Annacis Island – beneath the bridge –and says there is no other route that she and hundreds of other Annacis workers could logically take.
So Bannah wasn’t happy to hear Transportation Minister Todd Stone’s announcement last month that the new bridge to replace the Massey Tunnel will be tolled.
“I groaned,” she said. “We’re probably looking at tripling the amount of time to get across that bridge.”
Bannah says Alex Fraser traffic got much worse after the Port Mann Bridge was tolled.
And the heavier volumes affect local traffic on Annacis, because a growing number of drivers coming from Richmond short cut around the main bridge line by taking the long Annacis off-ramp, turning around on the island and then rejoining Highway 91.
She can’t imagine how much worse it will get if thousands of additional drivers who normally take Highway 99 and the Massey Tunnel instead switch to the Alex Fraser to avoid paying tolls.
“Everyone’s going to use it,” she said, adding many other workers on Annacis who live in Surrey and Langley are also worried.
“I think I will need to buy a boat,” added Surrey resident Chris McArdle, who also works on Annacis. “Annacis Island is going to truly be traffic hell on Earth.”
TransLink expects to charge tolls on the new Pattullo Bridge when its replacement opens.
Stone has suggested that after tolling the Massey and Pattullo, tolls might have to be added at the Alex Fraser as well, but the government has yet to specifically commit to toll reform or outline how it might work.
So the B.C. Trucking Association has given Stone a nudge, urging the province to begin discussing the idea more openly.
“We have concern that we’re just going to be causing unnecessary congestion by tolling four out of the five crossings and stopping at that,” said BCTA president Louise Yako.
That scenario would cause “considerable problems” for businesses on Annacis Island, which she said is a major hub for trucking companies and home to various industries and warehouses.
“Conceptually, what we’re talking about is tolling all of the crossings,” Yako said. “The Second Narrows, the Lions Gate, Oak Street, Granville, Burrard – all of them. So that everyone pays a little bit to finance the large infrastructure projects that we all agree are necessary.”
All of the region’s bridges will eventually need to be rehabilitated, rebuilt or expanded, Yako argues.
She won’t say what she thinks is an appropriate toll amount for currently untolled bridges, adding that number will depend on a detailed accounting of the operating costs of the current transportation network and estimates of the need for future capital projects.
But Yako suggested tolls be put on those crossings soon – before the new Massey bridge opens – rather than waiting for the completion of that project in 2022.
She noted the harm caused by congestion is not limited to travel time delays.
“When people drive further than they have to they’re producing additional emissions that are unnecessary and the further someone drives the greater the safety risk of a crash.”
‘Do it right now’
Delta Mayor Lois Jackson also supports tolls on all crossings at much lower rates – the sooner the better.
“I’d do it right now,” Jackson said, adding “people would understand” if blanket tolls were low enough.
“People would take a direct route rather than going around to save on the toll,” she said. “It would take the pressure off a lot of people who are now scrambling around taking longer routes to save on paying a toll.”
Other mayors have proposed harmonized bridge tolling before and it was recommended as a potential pilot project for road pricing last fall by an economic think tank.
Jackson hopes motorists support the idea by providing feedback to the province in the Massey replacement consultations, which wrap up Jan. 28.
New Westminster Coun. Patrick Johnstone said cutting the Port Mann toll in half and putting the same charge on the Pattullo Bridge would likely generate the same revenue as the Port Mann now does and greatly improve congestion in New Westminster and north Surrey, where many vehicles converge to take the free Pattullo.
“That would eliminate the traffic diversion problems and it would give the truckers an opportunity to use the freeway they want to use without being priced out of using it,” Johnstone said.
Port Mann leakage
Neither of the existing two toll bridges – the Port Mann and Golden Ears – are making as much money as was originally forecast, casting doubt on the debt repayment schedules.
“You’re having a revenue leak right now on the Port Mann – 20,000 people are just not showing up on the Port Mann, they’re showing up on the Pattullo instead,” Johnstone said.
He believes road pricing is “inevitable” and a move as soon as possible to consistent tolling along the Fraser could save drivers tremendous amounts of time.
So far Premier Christy Clark has shown little interest in the idea.
Johnstone said it might also undermine her government’s plan for the $3.5-billion Massey replacement.
“Ultimately, if you toll the tunnel and all the crossings on the Fraser, we would probably find the traffic demand for the tunnel would go away and we would no longer require an expensive bridge to replace it,” he said. “The premier has to figure out how to pay for this infrastructure she wants to build.”