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Gridlock fears grow as Port Mann tolls edge closer

Highway 1 motorists who don't want to pay the tolls that will be slapped on the new Port Mann Bridge this December will instead be directed to the Pattullo Bridge and provincial officials say the South Fraser Perimeter Road will offer a speedy connecting route to the free crossing.

But some Metro Vancouver mayors question how well traffic will move on the new truck freeway.

And they predict gridlock will await those drivers in New Westminster and Burnaby, where transportation ministry officials say Brunette Avenue will act as the signed free route to the Pattullo.

"We're going to end up with a massive amount of traffic," predicts Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan.

"Right now we have no room on the roads," New Westminster Mayor Wayne Wright said. "If there's an increase in traffic, all it's going to do is slow everything down or stop everything."

They spoke after Premier Christy Clark and Transportation Minister Blair Lekstrom visited Surrey Tuesday to highlight transportation improvements and mark the half-way point of work on the South Fraser Perimeter Road (SFPR).

The ministry has not yet determined exactly where it will put signs guiding motorists to the free crossing, but has promised to release details by summer.

The northeast third of the $1.26-billion perimeter road is slated to open this winter at the same time as the new Port Mann, carrying westbound traffic as far as the Pattullo.

Later, when the entire SFPR is finished through to Deltaport, officials say other free alternate routes incorporating the Alex Fraser Bridge could also be signed, but they offered no specifics.

Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts said the current plan means sending huge numbers vehicles to a 75-year-old bridge that has been the scene of many fatalities over the years.

"This makes no sense to me," she said. "The traffic diversion is going to congest that whole area onto the Pattullo Bridge. It's going to be a traffic mess."

Watts notes TransLink intends to replace the Pattullo by 2018 and probably add tolls to pay for it.

"Then, when the Pattullo is constructed with tolls, what's the plan?" she asked.

"Or I guess nobody is going to worry about it until the day it happens. But as mayor of the City of Surrey, I need to be worrying about it now."

Watts, has repeatedly called for a fair tolling policy that ends the piecemeal tolling of bridges and instead implements consistent smaller charges applied region-wide.

She said that would make more sense so drivers don't divert away from the most direct route, increasing congestion, but Lekstrom and Clark have so far rejected the idea.

Mike Proudfoot, CEO of the province's Transportation Investment Corp., said modeling shows the Port Mann tolls will not cause any significant net diversion of traffic to untolled bridges, because other drivers now using those routes will switch to Highway 1 and pay tolls to take advantage of travel time savings.

Lekstrom was also questioned on why traffic lights instead of full interchanges are being installed at key points along the SFPR, a decision critics say will slow truck traffic to a crawl and congest the new expressway.

He said the measure was necessary to reduce the project's cost and said the province has acquired and pre-loaded the land needed to eventually convert the intersections to interchanges with on and off ramps.

"As future demands grow, whether it's 10, 20 or 30 years down the road, we will be ready to put the interchanges in," he said.

B.C. Chamber of Commerce president John Winter warned much of the benefit of the perimeter road will be negated because of the traffic lights.

"Trucks don't go very well through intersections with stops and starts," he said.

Delta Mayor Lois Jackson said it would have been smarter to build the interchanges up front.

"If you've got truck after truck after truck, you can just mentally visualize that it will not be an 80 kilometre an hour road," Jackson said. "I think it's physically impossible to have that happen."

NDP transportation critic Harry Bains said the SFPR is little solution to drivers from much of Surrey who want to avoid tolls but who would have to detour east to 176 Street in order to connect to the perimeter road.

Bains said that means there will continue to be heavy traffic on roads like 104 and 108 Avenue to and from the Pattullo.

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