Dude, Where Are My Cars: Port Mann Bridge

Despite falling traffic, BC puts its bets on more cars.
This post is 35 in the series: Dude, Where Are My Cars?

Unsurprisingly to regular readers of this blog, traffic on the Port Mann Bridge in Surrey, BC peaked in 2005, and then fell modestly but steadily through 2010.

That said, there’s no telling what this means for the future. A new, 10-lane Port Mann Bridge—certified by the Guiness Book as the widest bridge in the world—is nearing completion, and three lanes of the bridge have already been opened to traffic. A wider Port Mann crossing will likely be less congested than the current bridge, at least at first; and history has shown that free-flowing urban highways tend to attract new drivers. But it’s also tolled bridge—$1.50 each way for the first year, $3.00 and potentially rising with inflation thereafter—and tolling tends to reduce traffic volumes. Toss in some uncertainties around oil prices, vehicle efficiency, land use, and government policy, and there’s just no telling what the future traffic trajectory might be.

Of course, the province is betting big on long-term traffic growth—they need the cars to show up, since they’re hoping to use toll revenue to pay for their highway-building binge. But if traffic grows more slowly than they hope, then it’ll take an awful long time for the province to pay for that bridge.

(Hat tip to Joe Cortright.)

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  1. yvrlutyens says:

    That report you link to has the key chart on page 10. It shows a steep increase from 110,000 vehicles to 180,000 vehicles in 2018 and then a slower increase to 280,000 in 2048. The assumption is that there is huge pent up demand for the bridge, well beyond the previous peak of 122,000, basically as if the decline since 2005 was an aberration that will shortly be made up. These projections include a toll, but of course the question is whether its impact has been accurately plotted.

    • Clark Williams-Derry says:

      Good point. And yes, that’s a big question: is the province right about its projections traffic growth? That’s simply unknowable at this point — which makes their highway expansion strategy a gamble!!

      But there are other questions as well: in the context of the province’s other needs, are the costs and risks of highway expansions worth the benefits? Could the money be better spent in other ways? How does road widening fit in with the province’s climate goals? And also — in widening roads, is the province *predicting* the future, or is it *shaping* the future? Some prophecies, including forecasts of transportation demand, can be self-fulfilling.

    • VeloBusDriver says:

      I don’t know much about this particular bridge but the projected increases in vehicle traffic begs the question, “Where will all those cars go?”. BC has built the widest bridge but are the arterials and streets on both ends ready to accept all of those cars?

      • Tim says:

        Nope, all of the arterial roads are the same on both sides of the bridge. There are some improvements near the highway (within 500m or so).

  2. yvrlutyens says:

    Because the bridge and highway connects to so many areas of the city, I actually think that there is some additional capacity on the arterial network to handle additional volumes from the larger bridge. This is not something that I look forward to, but I am currently putting my faith in the toll to temper demand. Fee for use apparently really impacts travel decisions.

    Another example of this in reverse is the UPass that Translink copied from Seattle. By making transit passes universal and compulsory, they made transit seem free. Usage soared, and the main bus line to UBC is so packed that the white-gloved Tokyo subway station attendants stuffing people into trains would be right at home stuffing people into buses.

    While I am now free of the buses to UBC (they turned my into a cyclist because I couldn’t reliably get on them) I though about again with the predictable complaints about the bridge tolls. For a heavy user of the bridge, they will be $1,500 a year. But a 2-zone bus pass for a year costs $1,300. This price sensitivity makes me wonder what transit usage would be like if they were priced like roads: paid by taxes and offered for free. Much higher I suspect. (Not that I would advocate this pricing system as it leads to overconsumption as with the roads.)

    • Clark Williams-Derry says:

      Great thoughts!

      The experience with tolling the 520 bridge in Seattle has been that (1) many drivers seek the toll-free alternative routes, and (2) there’s some overall decline in demand for cross-lake car trips. BUT…I haven’t seen numbers yet about how many of those “disappeared” cross-lake trips have moved to transit, vs. simply going to other destinations or nowhere at all. I’ve been looking for that data for a while, since I think it’ll inform a lot of people’s thinking about the effects of tolling on travel behavior.

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