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Monday, January 26, 2009


After a fire caused the CLOSURE OF THE PATTULLO BRIDGE in METRO VANCOUVER, The Pattullo Bridge reopened around 4:15 a.m. Monday, a week after a fire on a wooden trestle forced it to close and funnelled its 80,000 daily commuters into gridlock on the remaining Fraser River crossings. But as commuters heave a sigh of relief, TransLink said the incident has raised questions about how people will deal with traffic adjustments and road closures during the 2010 Olympics.

Officials noted that it took at least three days for some people to switch from their cars to public transit or to begin working from home after the Pattullo Bridge was closed the morning of Jan. 18. “It’s good that people had a chance to try out these adjustments because in the future it could be anything — a traffic accident or weather — that makes it difficult to travel across the Fraser,” TransLink spokesman Ken Hardie said. “Given that it took three days or so for people to adjust, one of the things that needs to be considered is whether the traffic restructuring for the Olympics shouldn’t go in a week before the Olympics start ... that’s definitely something we’re going to discuss.”

The Pattullo Bridge, which connects Surrey and New Westminster, was expected to be closed for a month after the wooden trestle at its south end was scorched by fire. But TransLink last week announced the bridge would be repaired in two weeks after its engineers secured a piece of bridging deck used in the Canada Line construction from Surespan Construction in Langley. Crews then worked around the clock installing new pilings for the bridge before plunking the new span into the 18-metre section Sunday morning — a week ahead of schedule.

TransLink planned to pave the new section Sunday afternoon and have the bridge open to commuters, cyclists and pedestrians at six this morning. Four lanes at the north end of the bridge were also repaved while the replacement span was being installed. The bridge repair was done quicker than expected, Hardie said, because TransLink was able to get the crews and the materials it needed to replace the wooden trestle. The cost of the bridge repairs was estimated at $1.5 to $2 million and was expected to come out of TransLink’s contingency budget.

“It all just fell into place perfectly,” Hardie said.

The reopening of the bridge, which connects Surrey and New Westminster, will bring relief to commuters and ease the gridlock that has gripped Metro Vancouver bridges and tunnel since the Pattullo was closed. Although TransLink urged commuters to use public transit — adding more SkyTrain cars, starting the service earlier and adding more temporary park-and-ride stations — it appeared Metro Vancouver residents were still choosing to drive. That meant longer lineups and delays across the Alex Fraser and Port Mann bridges and the George Massey Tunnel.

On Tuesday morning, traffic heading north across the Port Mann Bridge was backed up to 200th Street in Langley, while buses had to be rerouted in Guildford as they tried to get to Highway 1. By Friday, Hardie said, it appeared the lineup to the Port Mann was shortened to 176th Street in Surrey. The Pattullo carries about 20 per cent of the traffic passing over the Fraser River in Metro Vancouver. The average traffic volume on the Port Mann Bridge is 127,000 cars a day, while the Alex Fraser Bridge sees 98,000 vehicles daily.

The bridge closure was one of the biggest crises TransLink has had to deal with because the bridge was out for a week, said Hardie. “This is the longest term issue we’ve had to deal with and it’s a major loss of a piece of our network. “What this highlighted is we don’t have a lot of redundancy in the system,” he said. “When something goes down we can’t simply shift the traffic because everything else is busy too. We’ve all had a reminder of how the transit system can be vulnerable and what it means to lose that capacity.”

Hardie said part of the problem was that TransLink was scrambling each day to make adjustments to ease the commute. Although Surrey and New Westminster opened extra park and rides to get more people to take transit, he said there was a lack of signage to help people find those spaces. That was rectified later in the week.

Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts said she was pleased to see the bridge repaired so quickly, but added the incident underscored the need for more infrastructure south of the Fraser River. By 2040, the population of Surrey and White Rock will be bigger than Vancouver’s, she said, but transit growth isn’t keeping up.

The Pattullo, built in 1937, was the first major commuting route between Surrey and communities to the north and west. Over the years, its narrow lanes and sharply curved approaches have been blamed for numerous head-on collisions. Surrey has been lobbying to get it replaced for at least eight years. Although TransLink is planning a new six-lane bridge to replace the Pattullo, it could take six to 10 years before it materializes. The design for the bridge is 85-per-cent done, but it’s still not known exactly where it will be built.

Watts said the bridge fire — and the inconvenience to the travelling public — may spur that process along. Both she and New Westminster Mayor Wayne Wright will continue to push for the new bridge, she said, while she’ll also press for more transit, including light rail and an extended SkyTrain service. In some areas, she said, residents have to wait an hour for a bus. “It’s really important to make sure we have that bridge built as soon as possible,” Watts said. “One of the problems has always been that people south of the Fraser have been really dependent on their vehicles. It’s easier and more reliable to get in your car and drive. “This whole situation has really brought to the forefront the issues we’ve been dealing with.”

Besides transit, Watts said, the issue has also raised the question of how to deal with Surrey’s homeless. TransLink says the fire may have been started by homeless people, who were huddled under the trestle and lit a candle to keep warm or cook a meal. The area was blocked by a chainlink fence. Surrey RCMP are still investigating.

Watts said she will ask the provincial government to provide more outreach workers for Surrey to ensure people aren’t living in areas where they’re not allowed. There’s a shelter nearby. “We’ve got to pay more attention to our vagrants or homeless people who are in places they ought not to be,” she said.