GVRD Traffic Crisis: Collision Course

With the Port Mann Bridge acting as the Achilles Heel of GVRD traffic systems, Charles Montgomery takes the passenger seat with B.C. Transportation Minister Kevin Falcon at the helm to learn why Falcon is pushing for the Gateway expansion project and what exactly this crisis, on overdrive to a collision course, means for the Province's economy.

With the Port Mann Bridge acting as the Achilles Heel of GVRD traffic systems, Charles Montgomery takes the passenger seat with B.C. Transportation Minister Kevin Falcon at the helm to learn why Falcon is pushing for the Gateway expansion project and what exactly this crisis, on overdrive to a collision course, means for the Province’s economy.

It’s a late winter morning in Surrey. Kevin Falcon has got the wheel of his black Pathfinder in one hand, a cup of Starbucks in the other and a journalist in the passenger seat. Everything is going to plan: we are inching, inching over Highway No. 1 on the 176th Street overpass, heading for the Port Mann Bridge and the epicentre of a crisis B.C.’s transportation minister insists can only be solved with a thorough dose of asphalt and concrete. The situation may be dire, but Falcon is pleased as punch to be caught in the rush hour mire this morning. “Look at this: it’s 7:18 a.m. and we have to wait to get onto the highway,” he says, nodding at the lanes below where headlights are strung like Christmas decorations off toward Langley. “It’s a parking lot. Look at those trucks. That’s our economy sitting idle.” This isn’t the first time Falcon has led a journalist on a rush-hour demonstration of Surrey’s Achilles heel. He’s confident that the crawl across the Port Mann is proof enough for anyone that the bridge needs to be twinned. It’s not just a matter of getting Mr. and Mrs. Jones to work sooner – the economy is being strangled to the tune of $1.5 billion a year because of delays to truck traffic in the Lower Mainland. And with Chinese trade in overdrive, Falcon says the need for infrastructure improvements is urgent. “We need to ensure that we are ready to handle the 300-per-cent growth in container traffic forecast to be coming to North America in the next 15 years. We are just woefully unprepared. Tens of thousands of jobs are at stake here.” The Gateway Program, the province’s $3-billion prescription, plans for an improved road along part of the north edge of the Fraser River, a new four-lane highway along the south shore and, more contentiously, the twinning of the Port Mann Bridge and widening of Highway No. 1, all the way from Langley to Vancouver proper. Falcon speaks about the project like a protective father. He says Gateway was his idea, proposed to a receptive Premier Gordon Campbell more than two years ago. He likens it to the great works of the late W.A.C. Bennett – in fact, he invokes the former premier’s name three times before we roll into Vancouver. Although public consultation about Gateway began barely two weeks before this rush-hour commute, Falcon’s resolve is unshakable: “It’s going ahead. Absolutely. The whole program.” With container traffic between Asia and North America growing at the rate of one Port of Vancouver every year, the Pacific Gateway has become an issue of national urgency, as evidenced by the federal government’s own Pacific Gateway Strategy announced last fall. The cost of getting the solution wrong will be orders of magnitude above the price tag of Falcon’s new highways. As the minister noses into the bridge traffic, what is most certain is that he is staking his reputation on this plan. This isn’t surprising, given that Falcon is the MLA for Surrey-Cloverdale, where an acute lack of transit has rendered most residents entirely dependent on their cars for commuting. Nor is it surprising that the project has prompted a collective wail of protest from ­environmental groups and drawbridge-­raisers on the north side of the Fraser River, who have been gathering at heated rallies to demand that carbon-spewing suburbanites ride the bus, dammit. Not surprising, either, is the support the Gateway Program has ­received from truckers, port operators and many shippers, whose own Greater Vancouver Gateway Council has been ­begging for any investment to ease the bottle­necking in the region’s transportation system. Paul Landry, president of the BC Trucking Association, explains that truck owners have simply given up on promises of better ­­transit for the region. While the association would be thrilled to see dedicated lanes for commercial traffic, none have been explicitly ­included in Falcon’s plan. Truck owners, he says, will take whatever they can get when it comes to road capacity. What is surprising though – and disturbing – is that a broad range of urban design experts, local municipal leaders, engineers and transportation planners say that Falcon settled on his $3-billion solution long before he bothered to ask them if it was the right thing to do. This is remarkable, considering that the Lower Mainland is home to some of the continent’s most respected thinkers in urban design and transportation.

“The plan for the Port Mann and Highway No.1 is just inconceivable. It’s not going to help the ports; it’s going to hurt them” – Gordon Price, SFU City Program director

Some argue that Falcon is shoveling money in entirely the wrong direction – that goods and people can be moved more efficiently while spending less money. Others say that the Port Mann/Highway No. 1 component of the plan will exacerbate the very problems it is meant to solve. They wish that the minister of transportation had simply asked for advice before charging ahead on B.C.’s latest mega-project. This frustration is fueling a backlash that goes far beyond the parochialism that sometimes infuses politics in Greater Vancouver. Some senior municipal planners – despite their inherent fear of ruffling feathers in Victoria – have pointed out that the Gateway team consulted their departments about the minor details of the project, but never the big picture. At the time this story was written, the board of the Greater Vancouver Regional District, which represents most municipalities affected by Gateway, was still waiting for the meeting the GVRD had requested with Falcon more than a year previously. Like ­municipal planning departments, the GVRD has a list of unanswered questions about the program’s projected costs and benefits. The whopper: Based on what evidence will ­twinning the Port Mann Bridge and widening Highway No. 1 solve the congestion problem? [pagebreak] Gordon Price, director of the City Program at Simon Fraser University, says that the ministry hasn’t answered that question, nor has it proved that the Highway No. 1 expansion will serve shippers’ needs. “The plan for the Port Mann and Highway No. 1 is just inconceivable. It’s not going to help the ports; it’s going to hurt them,” Price argues. “These through-roads that are meant to serve goods-movement capacity, they will become the main streets of suburbia. They will be congested. They will continue to frustrate the shippers who thought they were going to get access to additional asphalt for the purpose of getting through the region – unless, of course, you designate all those new lanes for trucks only. And if you are going to do that, you had better tell the people in the suburbs that those highways will not get them to work faster.” Along with Falcon’s boss, former Vancouver mayor Gordon Campbell, Price was part of a broad consensus of politicians, citizens and planners who spearheaded the Livable Region Strategic Plan back in 1986. The LRSP advocated a Lower Mainland of dense town centres well served by transit, and it specifically rejected the idea of adding new cross-river capacity. The LRSP acknowledged what countless studies have shown: that highway expansion never, ever, extinguishes congestion. What new lanes do, if they are not restricted to commercial traffic, is encourage low-density sprawl tens of kilometres away from jobs, groceries and rapid transit. Such sprawl is, as urbanist James Howard Kunstler wrote in The Geography of Nowhere, the most expensive and inefficient way to organize human settlement. Falcon says the sustainability crowd shouldn’t blame him or his highways for suburban sprawl: “I think we do need better land zoning,” he says. “But zoning is a municipal government issue. It’s in their control, not mine.” He’s right, technically, but here’s the big, squirming fly in the Gateway ointment: study after study has shown that there is an inherent relationship between transportation planning and land use. New highways fuel urban sprawl. Sprawl always generates traffic, which creates an even more urgent need for road lanes. And the wheels continue to spin. Mark Holland, a sustainability consultant who has advised the provincial government on town planning in the past, says the province has apparently made “no formal effort” to engage the community of sustainable development experts on Gateway. “It is a fatal mistake in their investment strategy if they think that this is going to solve anything,” says Holland, who is not against the expansion per se, but is concerned that the government has not bothered to consider the bigger picture. “They are not addressing the most important part of the discussion: Where are people sitting when they are on those extra lanes? If we are going to move people around the region by road, we will certainly need more road capacity, but the problem is that the province is not investing in the required bus infrastructure first. If they don’t do that, then that new double bridge and expanded highway is going to be clogged in a decade, and we will be right back where we are now.” And others have doubts. In fact, one of the project’s first proponents has expressed concerns about the Highway No. 1 expansion – or at least the way the ministry is going about it. In 2004, Michael Goldberg, then professor of urban land policy at UBC’s Faculty of Commerce and Business Administration, wrote a report for the BC Progress Board urging the province to use transportation as an economic growth engine. Two years after endorsing the expansion, Goldberg qualified his support this spring: “I do think it is important that we explore ways to manage demand and our existing supply better before we embark on huge investments in transportation infrastructure such as the proposed Port Mann/Hwy No. 1 investments,” Goldberg, who now lives in Singapore, wrote in an email. “This is particularly true for road/bridge/tunnel investments since the evidence to date is that they help to create additional traffic by stimulating additional land use in their path, which in turn stimulates more traffic.” This relationship between roads and land use points to a critical problem with Gateway’s cost/benefit estimates. The Gateway Program Definition Report asserts that by 2031, the program will deliver $900 billion in vehicle operating cost savings every year. Stuart Ramsey, a transportation engineer with 20 years of experience in the public and private sectors, charges that these (and other projections in the report) overestimate both the benefits of building and the costs of not building infrastructure. “We assume that development will happen exactly the same way, no matter how we plan and build roads and transit projects,” says Ramsey. “In the real world, if that distant land isn’t accessible, then it simply won’t be marketable.” In other words, more people are likely to move east and away from the dense town centres if the highway is widened. And fewer will do so if it is not. The Gateway models simply don’t take this into account. Still, anyone who joins Falcon on that morning crawl across the Port Mann amid the idling container trucks will agree with the minister that doing nothing is not an option, particularly when it comes to goods movement. The Chinese will not wait for our bottlenecks to ease. They will simply choose other gateways to the continent. But is building more road capacity the only solution? “We have only seen one solution offered here,” says Larry Frank, Bombardier Chair in Sustainable Urban Transportation at UBC’s School of Community and Regional Planning. “My concern is: Does the government have a clear understanding of what the problem is?” He also wonders if the government has adequately considered any measurable alternatives. The answer – no, according to Frank – indicates a gulf between decision makers and the world-class thinkers and planners we have attracted to universities in the region. So, on a soggy day last December, 100-odd students and land-use wonks gathered in the bunker-like auditorium of UBC’s Woodward Building. Cement walls echoed with microphone hum and scratch. Aisles buzzed with the energy particular to the halls of academia: the optimism of people who believe that creative thinking and rigorously debated ideas can trump parochial politics. If you are into that sort of earnest chatter, then the air was positively intoxicating. [pagebreak] A few months before the gathering, Frank handed his master’s students this familiar conundrum: Consider a prosperous metropolitan region. Throw in port facilities crucial to the national interest. Add an era of explosive growth in trade, a dollop of suburban sprawl and an inconveniently placed river. Imagine it wrapped in tangles of costly and polluting traffic congestion, with big knots at either end of the 40-year-old bridge in the middle of it all. Now think outside the box and get that region ready for even more traffic, even more people and a hell of a lot more trade. The students’ real-world model was, of course, the Lower Mainland. Their prescriptions for the region’s transportation woes were remarkably pragmatic, but they couldn’t have been farther from Kevin Falcon’s plan. These proposals may not be sexy, but pay attention, class: they synthesize the ideas of dozens of experts, and they could save the region from paving itself into a corner. Two students considered the problems facing the regular commuters, who make up 90 per cent of vehicle traffic on the Port Mann. They found that folk living south of the Fraser River simply never got the decent transit they were promised years ago. The region has just two-thirds the bus fleet that GVRD plans called for back in 1994, and not a single bus on the Port Mann. Solution: more buses, more SkyTrain cars and rapid-bus routes with transit priority, including a link from Central Surrey, over the Port Mann, to Coquitlam. That rapid-bus plan would require extensive queue-jumper lanes to enable buses to slip past the bridge-entrance bottlenecks, but it would be vastly cheaper than building a new bridge. This leaves the Field of Dreams conundrum: if you build it, they will come. As long as there are free road lanes to fill, cars will pour into them and trucks will continue to be swamped. The students’ solution was – cue the horror film soundtrack – road tolling. Logic has it that if you charge drivers for using freeways, particularly at peak hours, they’ll think twice about hitting the on-ramp. Tolling revenues could then be pumped into transit improvements, giving residents a chance to choose how to get around. This is one alternative the transportation minister has considered with enthusiasm, though he says the political cost of tolling existing roads without building new ones would be mortal. (Ironically, the GVRD’s Livable Region Strategic Plan already calls for the eventual tolling of every single bridge to the Burrard Peninsula. The first crossing to see tolls will be the new Golden Ears Bridge, east of the Port Mann.) Still, none of the above fully addresses Falcon’s most urgent Gateway concern: the emerging crisis in goods movement. Falcon isn’t exaggerating the expected explosion in Asian trade: China is constructing more than 100 new container loading berths in the next five years, compared to just a handful planned for the west coast of North America. It was “big idea” time in the Woodward auditorium. Students Pete Giles and Eric Grant traded the mic back and forth nervously, and then launched into the goods- movement dilemma. They pointed out that while a new South Fraser Perimeter Road would improve access to Deltaport, it would take much more than asphalt to open the West Coast bottleneck. The problem is that most of the container traffic entering local ports isn’t even bound for the Lower Mainland, yet it gets forced onto urban highways before heading off for the rest of the continent. Those containers shouldn’t be competing with minivans for road space in the first place, said Giles. They should go directly from ship to rail, and get sorted at a new multi-modal terminal at an inland transportation nexus. Kamloops, Prince George and Edmonton have all been suggested. The first challenge? Diverting some of that federal and provincial Gateway cash toward new rail bridges to ease the chronic rail congestion in the Fraser Valley. Add to that a temporal shift – both at the Port of Vancouver, currently only open from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., and at local shippers and receivers – and we would see some relief for goods movement. But Grant and Giles realized in their research that these initiatives still wouldn’t give the region the ability to handle the coming cargo tsunami. What Canada needs is more and bigger port capacity on the West Coast, and open rail lines to handle the containers. The answer lies not in the Lower Mainland, but at the deepest ice-free port on the continent. Prince Rupert is the shortest link between Shanghai and Chicago (a full day-and-a-half sail shorter than Vancouver). It’s also the terminus of an under-utilized rail network. The province, the feds and private partners are ­already working on a new container ­terminal for Prince Rupert, which should handle 500,000 TEUs, a third of Vancouver’s throughput, by 2007. But this is a drop in the bucket, according to supply-chain guru George Stalk, senior VP with the Boston Consulting Group. Stalk has been hired by a coalition of shippers, retailers and liner companies deeply anxious about North America’s ports squeeze. He applauds the UBC students’ goods-movement proposals, but insists we should go even further: Prince Rupert could, and should, handle four times the container traffic. Stalk argues that by focusing on local roads, the federal and provincial governments have shown they don’t understand the scope of the ports challenge. “These roads are going to add one- or two-per-cent capacity. It’s an insignificant contribution. It’s nothing,” he says in exasperation. “And the variable cost of moving freight by rail is one-tenth of the cost of moving it by truck. “What we need are brand new ports and brand new railroads.” The students who gathered at UBC that December day were no starry-eyed tree-huggers. Their passions seemed reserved for systems, for computer modeling, for the mathematics of policy. Though none of these have proven particularly potent in the last few decades of provincial megaproject politics, the students were optimistic that the minister of transportation could be compelled to take his eye off the road for a moment and consider his options, especially at a time when so many stakeholders are keen to talk. “Now’s the time to consider these solutions,” said Giles a few weeks later. “It will be many years before we get all levels of government back to the table.” (Federal Minister of International Trade and the Pacific Gateway, David Emerson – who is still dodging criticism over his crossing the floor to the Conservative Party in February – refused to be interviewed for this story. But the recent federal budget included $591 million for the Pacific Gateway initiative.) The problem is complex. The options are many. The price tag of getting the Pacific Gateway solution wrong will run into the tens of billions of dollars. That much is clear to the folks who spend their lives thinking about transportation and land-use planning. But here’s the problem with academia: Its members always underestimate the gulf between the nuanced world of ideas and the heated landscape of politics. Crossing that divide appears to be much harder than crossing the Fraser River on the Port Mann Bridge. The aggravation of a driver facing an extended rush hour and the sheer obviousness of the most immediate solution – more lanes! – are more potent than 1,000 transportation studies. As he cruises off the Port Mann and into a westbound HOV lane, the MLA from Surrey-Cloverdale finally loosens his grip on the wheel. This drive has been no fun at all, and Falcon swears there will be no putting the brakes on his plan.