Port Mann Tolls
The mainstream media is full of the reduction in tolls announced by the Minister of Transport yesterday. Laila Yuile, on Huffington Post, sees it as bait and switch – a blatant and possibly fruitless attempt to get back lost BC Liberal votes. But her opening paragraph really gave me pause
The Port Mann Bridge project has been steeped in controversy from its humble beginnings as an economically prudent plan to twin the existing bridge at a cost of $1.5 billion to what we’ve ended up with today: a completely new bridge and highway project totaling $3.3 billion financed through tolls.
First it was never, ever “economically prudent”. It was based on misdirection – that somehow the traffic jam of cars every day was threatening the competitiveness of the Port of Vancouver. The truckers were always front and centre of this argument. This fiction was fairly easy to dismiss. Most of the tonnage moving through the port is bulk commodities that come in by rail – and pipeline (of course but lets not get distracted). The container imports also move by rail – except for those destined for distribution facilities which tend to be located on cheap land at some distance from the port terminals.
What the intention was – always – was to widen the freeway from the Vancouver boundary to the Abbotsford boundary. The Port Mann bridge was never a standalone project. It might have been defensible if it had simply been a removal of a bottleneck to free up short distance movements between Surrey and Coquitlam (which is what most of the traffic over the bridge does in reality). But all that is planned is to replace a small bottleneck with a bigger bottle. The number of lanes on the bridge was always less than those leading on to it – and that will still be the case afterwards. There will just be more of both.
The Gateway made the idea of freeway expansion palatable because it was wrapped up in rhetoric about economic growth and increased competitiveness. The reality was different.
Kevin Falcon was a developer before he became a politician. There has always been a strong lobby against the regional plan which was seen as restricting what developers could do south of the Fraser. In fact, it made very little difference, as Doug McCallum ably demonstrated when Mayor of Surrey – and Chair of Translink. He easily duplicated the spread of big box retail along Highway 99 to replicate what was already in place in Whatcom County along I5. Junction “improvements” on both Highways 1 and 99 were funded by deals with developers on what had been land reserved for highway expansion adjacent to the intersections. And the sprawl of supposedly “affordable” housing (“drive till you qualify”) continued unabated. Kevin ran for election using funds raised at breakfasts attended by the real estate community who he encouraged to “get on board”. The highway expansion would enable them to build more of what they has always built and they knew they could sell. What made them really nervous was talk of transit and transit oriented development – for they were unfamiliar with both. Rail for the Valley was pretty much a hopeless case. Not that it could not have been done physically or financially – just that it was a hard sell to the money men. The people who fund the BC Liberals and pick their preferred candidates.
To those of us who travel the bridge, it had been clear for years something needed to be done to address the gridlock on both ends. Public transportation south of the Fraser is horrific during the week and nearly non-existent in some areas on the weekend, making vehicles mandatory for most.
At least she declares her interest. We know that the only effective way to address “gridlock” is to reduce peak demand for single occupant vehicle travel. In the short term the only way to do that is to price car use, and increase transit supply. In the longer term, denser and more mixed land use – served by walkable and bikeable routes – is the way to break the linkage between growth and sprawl. Again, really attractive transit has to be part of the mix. The provision of billions of dollars of provincial funding for highway expansion – and the new bridge – is one of the reasons why there is a crisis in funding for transit. It does look like there will be a rapid bus service of some sort when the new Port Mann opens but the only way that can be funded is by cutting service elsewhere.
There are options – there always are – always were. Just most of them get rejected. The BC Liberals kept dancing around insisting that there had to be more local funding – mostly because they always wanted to tap into property tax some more. And the insistence on looking for more efficiencies was always a good distraction. As was fare evasion: actually only 4% of riders have no ticket and the revenue loss is less than that. But somehow much money and attention can be thrown at that “problem” – but nothing to deal with overcrowding other than diversion of existing resources. And the idea of increasing transit service were it is currently inadequate or non-existent just does not get onto the radar because the places that already have good transit want more.
I can understand Laila’s anger – and her choice of target. It is just all too short term. I do not expect the BC Liberals to win – as the latest polls confirm. The problem is that afterwards it is going to be very hard to reverse the land use changes already in train as a result of the decision to widen the freeway. The type of development we are seeing – and will see – is not going to be sustainable, transit oriented or readily convertible. Land uses in Coquitlam and Vancouver will change a bit once the Evergreen and the UBC lines open – but not by nearly enough to shift the region’s mode split by very much. South of the Fraser is car country now – and still will be – and all of the emphasis is going to have to be how to make those cars less of a problem. So expect a lot more attention on car sharing, alt fuels and electric vehicles – none of which individually has much impact and even collectively is little more than a band aid. The systemic problem of car dependance will remain even if we can overcome some of our fondest held beliefs – like car ownership and not sharing rides (not getting into cars with strangers) and the need to limit access to the public transport market.
The tolls – which after a year will go back up to $3 a crossing – will have some impact on restraining demand for car trips between Surrey and Coquitlam. They might even get better at pricing strategies than they have so far on the Golden Ears, which has plenty of underused capacity at peak periods. But it will have no impact at all on car use on the rest of the Highway. There will be no toll for a trip between Vancouver and Burnaby, New Westmister or Coquitlam. No-one will pay a toll between Surrey and Langley. And there will be a lot of lane space that will quickly fill up – even if some people will be making longer (but perceived to be “faster”) trips to use that new space. Yes, car use in the region has declined a bit – but mostly in places where there is an alternative. Along Highway 1 – until it fills up again – car use will grow. And that means a lot more traffic on the local road network that feeds the freeway. And more pressure from neighbourhoods to spend money on frustrating the through traffic, rather than spending money on better alternatives for local trips.
Laila is, I think, right in that this obvious tactic will misfire. But that is not the real issue. How do we now persuade people that it is worth spending more money on a transit system that is so blatantly organized to favour part of the region at the expense of the rest?