COLUMN: Toll policy already clear – make South of Fraser pay

New interchange at Alex Fraser Bridge will cut congestion, but many critical issues remain.

Last week’s announcement of a new interchange at Highway 91 and 72 Avenue in North Delta shows that the provincial government is finally aware of at least some of the critical issues related to the Alex Fraser Bridge.

Transportation Minister Todd Stone and Delta Mayor Lois Jackson announced last Wednesday the plans to turn the intersection into an interchange. The $30-million project will be completed by the fall of 2018.

The Highway 91/72 Avenue intersection has been controlled by a traffic light since the bridge opened in 1986. The intersection has long caused significant traffic delays, particularly for northbound traffic, because of ever-increasing volumes on Highway 91. Since the bridge opened, North Delta’s population has grown significantly, and Surrey’s has grown even more substantially.

The province is also looking into whether the bridge can be expanded to add a seventh lane, which would be used as a counterflow, as happens in the George Massey Tunnel and on the Lions Gate Bridge.

The Alex Fraser Bridge has assumed much more importance in the flow of traffic to and from the south side of the Fraser River since the new Port Mann Bridge opened. With the imposition of tolls, many drivers have been seeking other alternatives.

The aging Pattullo Bridge, which cannot handle the strain, is getting some of the former Port Mann traffic. However, it is frequently the subject of lane closures or complete shutdowns, as it badly needs repairs just to stay open a few more years. If a new Pattullo Bridge is ever built, it, too, will be a toll bridge.

Meanwhile, the Alex Fraser, with better access routes and no traffic lights along Highway 91 (except at 72 Avenue) has received much of the Port Mann traffic. It is congested every rush hour. It has significant truck traffic. Annacis Island, an industrial area, has been seeing more and more drivers “rat running” in an attempt to get to the bridge a bit sooner.

The pressure on the Alex Fraser will build even more if the province goes ahead with a tolled George Massey tunnel replacement. Many drivers from South Surrey and White Rock use the tunnel, which also has congestion issues. If a tolled Deas Island bridge is opened, the Alex Fraser will get even more congestion.

It’s hard to know what the province’s tolling policy really is. It has long claimed that it would only toll bridges when there are clear free alternatives.

It claimed the Pattullo was the free alternative to the tolled Port Mann. The other tolled bridge, the Golden Ears, is operated by TransLink, and replaced a free ferry. The only real alternative to it is the Port Mann.

If tolled Deas Island and Pattullo replacements are built, there will be enormous pressure on the Alex Fraser. It will be the lone free river crossing between the mouth of the Fraser River and Mission.

Stone has said the province will look at its tolling policy. When?

It appears the actual policy of the province, given its various announcements, is to force South Fraser residents to pay tolls, no matter what.

Meanwhile, Vancouver, North Shore and Richmond residents continue to use expensive highway projects like the Sea to Sky Highway for free, and pay no tolls when crossing bridges – unless they happen to come south.

There are occasional murmurs about a comprehensive road pricing policy for the region, but little in the way of concrete action.

The public is invited to an open house about the interchange project at Highway 91 and 72 Avenue on Thursday, June 23, from 3:30 to 8 p.m. at the North Delta Rec Centre, 11415 84 Ave.

Those who attend should ask pointed questions about provincial tolling policy, in addition to questions about the interchange project.

Frank Bucholtz writes Wednesdays for Peace Arch News.

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