It's unclear whether B.C.'s fed dollar windfall in the Pacific Gateway strategy will pave the road for the proposed Port Mann Bridge twinning, but Surrey's mayor is counting on it.
Stephen Owen, Federal Minister of Western Economic Diversification, said the $590 million recently announced to take advantage of Asia-Pacific trade is just the start of federal money coming to boost B.C. transportation infrastructure.
Interviewed over the phone, Surrey Mayor Doug McCallum was clearly pleased with the prospects.
The Port Mann twinning, "is going to go ahead," said McCallum, who also is chair of TransLink's board. "It's $600 million of federal money and they clearly said that's only a down payment. We support the twinning of the Port Mann to get good movement of goods on Highway 1. We can't even run our TransLink buses without gridlock now. So from our perspective, the faster the better."
Political hot potato
But when asked if whether the Gateway money will guarantee that the proposed Port Mann/Highway 1 project will go forward, Owen sidestepped.
"The Port Mann Bridge isn't even part of our conversation with the Province," Owen said. The Province has its own plans and ideas around that."
NDP transportation critic David Chudnovsky says, technically, Owen is right, but he believes the province is pushing for Port Mann/Highway 1 funding within the Gateway strategy envelope.
The head of the Society Promoting Environmental Conservation (SPEC), which helped host an October citizens' meeting on the issue, says her group has tried but failed to get clarification from federal Liberals representing Vancouver, including MPs Owen and Ujjal Dosanjh, on where they stand on the project.
"We've all been trying to get them on record regarding their position on the bridge and it's been a total frustration," said Executive Director Karen Wriston.
Wriston believes that everyone should be wary of twinning the Port Mann, predicting the project will be "a fiasco for people south of the river because they'll live through the turmoil of construction only to find within a few years that we've doubled the problem without beginning to solve it."
"If the Federal Liberals think they are insulating themselves from the repercussions of a decision to fund the Port Mann Bridge, they are quite wrong," Wriston warned.
Chudnovsky says widening highways to reduce traffic is like buying bigger pants to fight obesity: more room on highways will just encourage more people to drive.
On top of that, he warns Fraser Valley farmland near an expanded Highway1 will come under added pressure for development, with sprawl resulting because driving greater distances into urban centres will seem more feasible, at first.
According to federal government documents, Gateway money will go towards starting The Pitt River Bridge and Mary Hill interchange projects in 2006, and help fund an environmental assessment of the proposed South Fraser Perimeter Road, which is in line for further funding.
McCallum says the South Fraser Perimeter Road is Surrey's top priority transportation solution and Chudnovsky agrees it is a good project, but says the province needs to publish a complete usership study.
"There hasn't been any answer from the government as to whether they've done any work to determine what the relationship is between these other projects and the need for twinning the bridge," Chudnovsky said. "What will be the impact on traffic congestion? There has to be science to back it up. Both (Kevin) Falcon and (Gordon) Campbell have said you can't just build your way out of traffic congestion."
Vancouver vs. burbs?
The Tyee contacted Minister of Transportation Kevin Falcon to ask whether he expects Gateway funding for the Port Mann/Highway 1 project, but was told he was busy with budget hearings.
According to McCallum, Chudnovsky's fears about increased development pressure and suburban sprawl with highway expansion are unfounded.
"That concept is old thinking," McCallum said. "It doesn't take in the reality of modern cosmopolitan cities that need rapid transit and good roads. You need a balance."
The fear of an ever-increasing flood of cars and smog pouring into the city over a wider bridge and highway unites many Vancouverites, including its fractious city council, but McCallum says Vancouver needs to think beyond its borders.
"People have to understand that less than 20 percent of the traffic on Highway 1 ever goes to Vancouver," McCallum claimed. "You have to recognize there are other cities outside Vancouver that use it."
Sam Cooper is reporting on the civic elections and other issues for The Tyee. Jared Ferrie and David Beers contributed notes to this story.