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Decades of troubled waters over Pattullo Bridge

Columnist Frank Bucholtz explores the issues surrounding the replacement of the 80-year-old crossing
The Pattullo Bridge connecting Surrey with New Westminster is 80 years old and needs replacing. Surrey Now-Leader photo

The first full weekend closure of the Pattullo Bridge is scheduled to take place this weekend — from 9 p.m. on Friday to 5 a.m. on Monday. It is the latest in a series of weekend closures of the bridge over the past few summers, as work crews attempt to apply baling wire and binder twine to keep it patched up a little bit longer.

The Pattullo Bridge turned 80 this year, but there has been no celebration of any kind. The bridge has become a sad joke.

The never-ending talk of replacement is a perfect reflection of the impotence of TransLink and the oft-fractious relationships between cities north of the Fraser and those on the south side.

TransLink has been talking about replacing the bridge for years. It took over the bridge from the provincial government upon its formation almost 20 years ago. The width of a replacement bridge has been contentious, with New Westminster insisting it be no more than four lanes and Surrey wanting six.

However, it’s been a moot point because TransLink has no capital funds to replace the bridge. It has said for years that replacement would be financed by drivers who would pay a toll, but the incoming government wants to get rid of toll bridges. Thus that plan is likely out the window.

Replacement of the bridge was part of a plan by the Mayors’ Council that was shot down by voters in a referendum in 2015. It was never made clear how the proposed extra sales tax would speed up the bridge replacement, given that it was to be a toll bridge, but the mayors included it in the package anyway. Voters weren’t convinced — they decisively rejected the plan, despite a massive taxpayer-financed campaign urging approval.

Surrey Mayor Linda Hepner is now suggesting that the bridge project could be partially financed by a new federal trade and transportation corridors initiative, which aims to spend $2.1 billion over 11 years on projects to improve transportation corridors to international markets. The Pattullo would certainly qualify on that front, although New Westminster likely objects to any suggestion that a new bridge would be used by trucks to access port facilities.

The reality is that $2.1 billion will be spread across the country over 11 years, so it isn’t likely the Pattullo project would get any more than about $50 million from the fund.

Hepner also said recently that the bridge should be closed by 2022 if a replacement isn’t built. This sentiment has been echoed by TransLink CEO Kevin Desmond.

That would be a disaster. There is simply too much traffic between the two sides of the Fraser River to arbitrarily close down one of the corridors, particularly as the number of people living south of the river continues to grow. What could be even worse is that New Westminster will never agree to a new bridge if the existing one is closed down with no replacement in sight.

TransLink will never find the capital money to replace the bridge unless almost all of it comes from Ottawa and Victoria. It has no plan B if tolls to fund the new bridge are rejected. It is working on a design for replacement of the bridge, and claims construction could begin in 2019, but has no funds to do so. The enormous differences of opinion between Surrey and New Westminster, in particular, make building a replacement bridge even more challenging.

No wonder that the public is highly cynical about politicians and their promises to replace the bridge. What seems more likely to many of them is that the bridge will eventually crumble into the river.

Frank Bucholtz writes weekly for Black Press, as well as at