I made my second run for the Green Party in last spring's provincial election for two main reasons: gambling expansion (which both the Liberals and NDP support) and the Port Mann Bridge/freeway widening project (supported by both the Liberals and the NDP a year ago, but the NDP has backed away from it a bit).
I regard stopping the Port Mann project as a survival issue. I grew up in the eastern U.S., and witnessed the degradation of quality of life resulting from the construction of One Big Freeway from Boston to Petersburg, VA. I also spend a lot of time in the Seattle area, which is a monument to the futility of using paving as a method of dealing with traffic congestion.
I've been involved with the Livable Region Coalition since its inception, and I attended a public forum that they organized in Surrey in October. It was interesting and well-attended, but, unfortunately, unconvincing to those in the audience who depend on commuting across the Fraser River in order to earn a living.
The message I heard from these people is, “we have a serious traffic congestion problem, and we need a solution to it now.”
OK, I heard you. Now, let's get real. Even if construction on the Port Mann project started tomorrow, it would take at least five years to complete it, so it's not a “now” solution anyway. And here's a couple of other things to consider. During the course of that five-year construction period, there will be constant lane closures and detours. Conjure up an image of what the Cape Horn interchange will look like during this period. If it's a short-term solution that you want, the Port Mann/freeway expansion project will make things worse. Then, take a look at how much your last tank of gas cost you. What do you think a litre of gasoline will cost in 2011?
Another complaint I heard at the Surrey forum was about a massive traffic jam that had taken place a couple of days earlier, a result of an accident on the Port Mann Bridge during rush hours. I contend that if you want to solve this problem, the last thing you want to do is put more eggs into the Port Mann Bridge basket. It would be far better to provide some alternative ways of getting across the river.
There's already one alternative on the drawing board: the Golden Ears Bridge that will connect Fort Langley and Maple Ridge. The people of Surrey and Langley need at least one more, and the one I'll put up for discussion is a bridge that already connects New Westminster and Surrey; the bridge that the Skytrain runs on.
This bridge is capable of carrying far more trains than it does now. What we need is a fast, convenient way for people in Surrey and Langley to get to it.
There are already railroad rights-of-way that connect the Scott Road Skytrain station to Port Kells, Clayton, Cloverdale, Langley City, and Abbotsford. A complete replacement of the trackage, in addition to stations and overhead wires, would be required to run MAX-style light rail on this route.
How much would this cost? Let's find out, but it's certain that the billion dollars which the government proposes to spend on the Port Mann/freeway expansion project would be substantially more than a down payment. Both the federal and provincial governments are getting windfalls from gasoline taxes, and it's entirely sensible to spend this money on projects that reduce our dependence on gasoline.
What I'm proposing here should be classified as “mainstream”. Much of the route was used by the Interurban trains that ran from New Westminster to Chilliwack from 1910 to 1950. The Vancouver Sun ran a two-page article last winter about existing trackage in the Fraser Valley, accompanied by speculation about how it could be put into service for commuter rail.
There's another benefit, beyond the reduction in air pollution and noise, in building a light rail solution now instead of later. Urban sprawl is a bad thing, and all you have to do is travel south on 200th Street in Langley to see that the shopping malls are popping up already. Transit stations invite density; they can become areas where people can live, and have schools, stores, and restaurants within walking distance. Now, how can developers and city planners make mini-communities like this happen, if nobody is going to know where the transit stations are for another 15 or 20 years? Surrey and Langley will be much better places to live in the future if sensible development decisions are made now.
What needs to happen now is for local governments, the GVRD, and the Ministry of Transportation and Highways to take a greater interest in this. In particular, MoTH should put some of their bureaucrats to work pricing out alternatives to the Port Mann project such as this one. To get this happening, ask Kevin Falcon and Gordon Campbell if they really want to be remembered for wasting a billion dollars on a highway project that will be obsolete before it's completed.