New Westminster Pays Real Price of Tolls

There are many good reasons to live in my hometown of New Westminster. Whether it is the tree-lined heritage neighbourhoods or the riverfront walkways, the Royal City truly is a charming community that’s friendly to families.

If you visited the city for the first time today, you would be hard-pressed to realize the many significant hurdles it has faced over the last 60 years. They range from the economic demise of the downtown’s “miracle mile” on Columbia Street to the open drug markets that popped up adjacent to the town’s SkyTrain stations in the 1990s.

While those challenges were significant, they pale in comparison to what could happen if TransLink forges ahead with plans to replace the aging Pattullo Bridge with a new billion-dollar, six-lane tolled crossing.

City officials estimate that more than 400,000 cars travel through New Westminster each day. With a population of only about 65,000 people, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize most of those trips are commuters merely passing through to their final destination.

On Jan. 1, the tolls doubled to $3 for passenger vehicles on the new Port Mann Bridge. In the days that followed, traffic in the city became an even bigger nightmare. All of the main arteries and even some normally quiet side streets were gridlocked.

The traffic mayhem seemed to come as one big surprise to some media, who reported on it from the comfort of their traffic helicopters whirling above my home at rush hour. But should they have been caught unaware?

Back in June 2006, the general manager of engineering for the City of Surrey predicted what might happen to traffic patterns once the new tolls were in place.

“If tolling is only implemented for Port Mann Bridge, then a strategy must be implemented to manage traffic flows diverted to the Pattullo Bridge, and a funding and timing strategy developed to replace the Pattullo Bridge,” said Paul Ham in his report to council. “Tolling on only Highway 1 will likely result in traffic diversion to municipal roads, and the congested and narrow Pattullo Bridge.”

Ham went on to warn, “the Pattullo Bridge would be impacted the most severely and immediately. Diversion of traffic from Highway 1 due to tolls will increase the demand on the Pattullo Bridge. This bridge is aging (69 years old) and has lane widths that are narrower than other similar bridges.”

Maintaining the status quo for this crumbling piece of infrastructure no longer appears to be an option. But developing a cost-effective and workable solution that doesn’t further impact Royal City residents seems a nearly impossible task.