UPDATED: Heated discussions over Pattullo Bridge in New Westminster
It was a cool night outside Tuesday, but it was stuffy inside a modest meeting room at the Centennial Community Centre that was stuffed with more than 100 people passionate about the Pattullo Bridge.
A couple of doors were opened to keep the physical room temperature down as TransLink conducted workshops on the rebuilding of the bridge that connects New Westminster to Surrey. While the emotional temperature didn't even come close to boiling over it certainly came with some heat.
TransLink opened the doors precisely at 6:30 p.m. to reveal its proposed options for replacing the aging structure that turns 75 this year. For 30 minutes, mostly New West residents, about 40 per cent of them seniors, milled about looking at the boards put up by TransLink.
People were still coming in at 7 p.m., when TransLink's director of roads Sany Zein began the proceedings with an overview of the project. He emphasized safety as the main reason for the need to replace the bridge. The lanes are so narrow there's an accident on the bridge an average of every third day, and an accident causing an injury once every 12 days.
"We all want to remove the tense feelings going over that bridge," he told the audience.
He pointed out the Pattullo was built to last 50 years, not 75, and structurally it's well past its best-before date. He said TransLink could spend $200 million and it still wouldn't be a safe or seismically sound bridge.
"We have to find a way to pay for it. For the time being we have to figure out the scope and then figure out the funding," said Zein, although in correspondence with a local group, TransLink said it is presumed to be by tolls.
When he was done, the audience broke into six groups with about 15 people squeezed around each table for discussion groups led by a TransLink facilitator and a project engineer. Each table had large aerial picture maps outlining the options TransLink had come up with.
Participants bombarded staff with questions and comments. They were advised to put their concerns either down on a feedback sheet or on a post-it note they would plop over the spot on the map they were commenting on. One man discovered a couple of the options would mean ramps would run right in front of his apartment, blocking his view.
"You might want to write that comment down," engineer Andrew Kwiatkowski told the man.
At another table, a senior waved his umbrella dramatically as he pointed to places on a map and fervently told his concerns to TransLink's Rachel Jamieson. Like everyone else, he had to talk loud to be heard over the din.
The animated discussions went on for 50 minutes before the proceedings were closed at 8:30 to a tepid round of applause. But many wanted to keep on talking.
"This will destroy New Westminster," said Vladimir Krasnogor. "Before long New Westminster will just be another intersection between Burnaby and Surrey. They (TransLink) have tunnel vision. They can't see any other solutions than dumping traffic on New Westminster. They can't come up with different concepts to solve regional traffic issues without dumping the traffic on New Westminster."
The consultation session wasn't about the bridge's location, capacity or impact on New Westminster, it was about the access ramps, said New Westminster Environmental Partners president Reena Meijer-Drees.
"The focus was on the cosmetics of the interchanges and not on the feeder lanes," said Meijer-Drees. "Certainly they're not talking about the bridge. It is no longer up for discussion, which I find very disappointing. All their traffic modeling doesn't take into account toll avoidance. Their models can't predict that. With six lanes inevitably people will come over to the Pattullo (from the Port Mann). Tolling is about traffic demand management, and not about financing."
Meijer-Drees believes TransLink won't talk about four lanes because provincial policy would prevent tolls if one four-lane bridge was swapped for another. She said not only should four lanes be an option, but so should restricting the span to trucks, bicycles and pedestrians, or eliminating the connection entirely and using the $1 billion to improve transit in the Fraser Valley.
Project would keep traffic moving: resident
New Westminster resident Ken Dolphin likes the project, and he knows that won't make him popular in his own city.
"We have to replace it," said Dolphin, a retired teacher. "New Westminster is a hub, we are going to have traffic coming through us no matter what we do. If we can get it to move through quickly local traffic will move better. There will be more traffic whether we replace the bridge or not."
Zein said he isn't worried TransLink and New Westminster will come to an impasse on the Pattullo such as the one that developed during extensive public consultation on the United Boulevard Extension, a project TransLink eventually abandoned.
"The public is very engaged and are giving us constructive feedback. We were hoping the public would be passionate and they are. It's a big project that is multifaceted."
He said in this case TransLink has up to three years to work with New Westminster to find solutions for the extra traffic.
"We understand the importance of this project and so do they," said Zein. "We have a lot of work ahead of us. It cannot be rushed. We have to get it right," said Zein.
Another workshop session will be held Thursday (Feb. 23), 6:30 to 8:30 p.m., at the Inn at the Quay. They will also be conducted on the other side of the river at the Surrey Public Library Feb. 22 and Feb. 28.