VANCOUVER, B.C. – In 1986 Vancouver hosted a five-month long world fair, Expo ’86 and the Royal Canadian Mint was printing the one-dollar bill with regularity.
In the Greater Vancouver area during the same calendar year, public transit took its last trip across the Port Mann Bridge and construction was completed on the Alex Fraser Bridge.
Much has changed since those times in the mid-’80s. The world fair has been held seven times, but has yet to return to North American soil and one-dollar bills have fallen to the wayside in favour of the loonie.
Over that 20-year period little investment has been made to transportation infrastructure throughout B.C., but all that is set to change with the province’s Gateway Transportation Program.
On the final day of January the B.C. Government unveiled its plans to open up the province’s transportation network, which will come at a cost of about $3 billion.
“The program’s main objective is to address congestion on the highways, particularly along Hwy. 1,” explained Kevin Falcon, Minister of Transportation.
The program has been divided into three different phases.
The North Fraser Perimeter Road, including the new six-lane Pitt River Bridge connecting Maple Ridge and New Westminster; the South Fraser Perimeter Road, connecting Delta Port with the Golden Ears Bridge and Hwy. 1 in Surrey; and the twinning of the Port Mann Bridge, allowing for the re-introduction of transit service and the potential for future light rail transit.
With Hwy. 1 serving as the main route for the transportation of goods in the province, the new developments will be a push to improve the western province’s economic standing.
The need for improvement to the province’s infrastructure system was reinforced when government officials travelled to China last August.
“It’s an extraordinary event taking place over there, it’s becoming a manufacturing hub for the world. It all needs to get to market and B.C. has a tremendous opportunity to capitalize on those products coming to port,” Falcon told Truck News. “We have to be sure we have an effective transportation system to move them to market. The trucking sector is going to be a big beneficiary, as they should be.”
The current population of the Lower Mainland is about 2.1 million and according to the Gateway Program report, the Port Mann Bridge is congested 90 per cent of the time between 6 a.m. and 7 p.m.
“It’s not only people who can’t get around, but freight as well,” explained Ruth Sol, president of the Western Transportation Advisory Council. “The ability to move trucks, cars and freight around the region will allow our economy to grow.”
The B.C. Trucking Association (BCTA) has been calling for highway improvements in the province for a number of years, as highway congestion has taken its toll on economic possibilities.
“We’re very happy, it’s something we’ve been waiting for, for a long time,” said Paul Landry, president and CEO of the BCTA. “Basically all the improvements (of the Gateway Program) we’ve been pushing for.”
Landry estimates that truck trip times and commuter times have increased by about 30 per cent in the past 10 years; putting the economic cost of congestion estimated for all road users at upwards of $1.5 billion a year, with the trucking industry accounting for a third of those losses.
“Our assessment on the cost imposed on our industry is half a billion dollars a year,” he explained. “That includes wages, lost time due to sitting in traffic, excessive use of fuel and the strain on equipment of stop-and-go traffic.”
There are a few other areas of concern in the Lower Mainland which Landry would like to see addressed, but the announcement of the Gateway Program has eased his mind considerably.
“We appreciate the government has limited funds and a significant effort has been put forward,” Landry stated. “On the balance this is the best bundle of improvements we could expect.”
As congestion eases and the trip time for drivers declines, Landry is optimistic it will have a positive impact on carriers’ ability to find and keep professional drivers.
“It will depend on what benefits there will be to the industry,” he noted. “It’s not just a question about building more highways, but how we use them.”
It is the concern on how people will use the improved highways, which has brought the Gateway Program under some criticism. The program’s report estimates the population of the Lower Mainland to increase by nearly a million people over the next 25 years. A few municipalities in the area have questioned whether expanding the roadways will not just lead to more traffic, creating the same amounts of congestion.
“To suggest we do nothing to accommodate that growth is ridiculous,” stated Landry. “It fails to recognize the critical link between infrastructure investments and economic growth, jobs and the quality of life in the Lower Mainland.”
Falcon agreed that it would be a problem, if the plan only entailed adding lanes to the existing roads.
“That’s just life. You have to listen to people, think about what they have to say, incorporate what you can and move on,” noted Falcon.
As the project progresses forward, the Gateway Program has incorporated a number of measures, which Falcon believes will keep congestion to a minimum.
High occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes are to be established, the return of public transit, a light-rail transit option in the future and an investment of $50 million for cycling infrastructure. In addition, once the developments of the Port Mann Bridge are complete a tolling system will be established to recoup the costs of construction and will be removed once the infrastructure improvements have been paid off.
“If we didn’t toll then the congestion would return in five to 10 years,” explained Falcon. “But with the tolling it extends the benefits well beyond 2031.”
The cost of the toll has yet to be set and the exact tolling system to be used is also still in the works.
The government will be seeking public input on issues such as tolling, the use of HOV lanes, safety and access, during the course of a number of public consultations.
Consultation has been completed for the North Fraser Perimeter Road and with construction to begin this fall completion is expected in 2008. The consultation phase is nearing completion for the South Fraser Perimeter Road with construction expected to begin sometime next year. There still is a little more than a year of consultation expected for the Port Mann Bridge phase of the Gateway Program and construction is not expected to begin until mid to late 2008.