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Port Mann bottleneck cleared as new bridge officially opens

It's smooth sailing for Highway 1 commuters between Surrey and Coquitlam this week after the new Port Mann Bridge officially opened Saturday with eight lanes flowing.

Drivers raved about the new bridge – and their ability to cross it in record time – after its first big test of weekday conditions on Monday.

"The easiest commute in ages," tweeted Langley motorist Evangel Biason.

"Just crossed the Port Mann during rush hour without bumper to bumper traffic for the first time in my life," said Twitter user 'Taj', who estimated he saved 20 to 25 minutes.

Student Avneet Sidhu said he got to class 30 minutes early because of the bridge.

There's still congestion elsewhere on Highway 1 – the freeway is narrower in Burnaby, where construction will continue through 2013, and long waits were reported heading for the Brunette Avenue exit.

But B.C.'s biggest bottleneck has been unplugged.

The world's widest bridge had already been running with the normal five lanes – three eastbound and two westbound – but Saturday's ceremonial removal of traffic cones opened up three more lanes, instantly transforming traffic conditions.

"After years of waiting, drivers get to enjoy a faster, more efficient commute and will have more time to spend with their family instead of sitting in an idling car," Premier Christy Clark said at the opening.

Port Mann/Highway 1 officials had projected some commutes between Surrey and Coquitlam would fall by two-thirds to just over 10 minutes.

The convenience will only be free this week.

Starting next Saturday, regular drivers will pay an introductory toll of $1.50 per crossing (more for larger vehicles) and that will increase to $3 by the end of 2013, or by March for drivers who don't register before then with the TReO electronic tolling system.

Frequent users can get an unlimited monthly pass – $75 a month while the half-price toll is in effect rising to $150 in a year's time.

How residents respond to the tolls remains to be seen.

There are fears drivers who refuse to pay will then clog the free Pattullo Bridge, Alex Fraser Bridge and even the Massey Tunnel.

"Words cannot explain how sad I am that the Port Mann Bridge is tolled now," tweeted Sophie Thompson. "Looks like I'm stranded in Surrey."

Port Mann/Highway 1 project officials predict the net diversion will be modest, with significant numbers of drivers coming back to the corridor who have shunned it for years because of heavy congestion.

The northeast section of the South Fraser Perimeter Road is also now open, providing a new link through Surrey to the Pattullo Bridge for motorists seeking a free untolled crossing.

But since westbound traffic would have to get on the SFPR at 176 Street, much toll-averse traffic must wend its way through Surrey roads to get to the Pattullo before facing already severe congestion in New Westminster.

Some drivers are dead-set against having to pay to drive over a bridge and vow to boycott the bridge.

Other observers are more optimistic, saying the province's decision to offer half-price tolls as well as other incentives to sign up for TReO should ensure many drivers at least try out the system.

That may convince many to stick with it despite the cost once they're hooked by the ease of the new corridor.

Tens of thousands of drivers clogged phone lines and the TReO website Friday to get a credit for 20 free trips by a Friday midnight deadline.

More than 60,000 new drivers signed up that day and more than 500,000 vehicles are now registered.

The province has promised tolls will come off the bridge in 2050 when the $3.3-billion highway improvement project is fully paid off.

But some experts say one of the bridge's legacies may have been to create a perception of unfair treatment – with tolls applied to bridges in just one part of the region – igniting an ongoing debate about "fair tolling" reforms that could see all major roads eventually tolled.

It will be Metro Vancouver's second toll bridge, after the Golden Ears Bridge, which is run by TransLink.

The project is not strictly a bridge.

The highway itself has been expanded and dozens of overpasses have been rebuilt or added along the 37-kilometre corridor.

HOV lanes now extend another 20 kilometres east – all the way to Langley – easing the commute for those who are able to car-pool.

HOV lane users who register as such and travel during peak hours also get a 25 per cent discount. Heavy trucks that travel overnight get a 50 per cent discount.

Work on the western sections of Highway 1 in Burnaby won't be complete until the end of 2013.

About the same time, the final two lanes of the new bridge will be connected, providing 10 lanes, five in each direction.

Two lanes each way will be for general purpose traffic, one will be for HOV users and buses and two more will be dedicated local traffic lanes to handle the large number of motorists who go between Surrey and Coquitlam.

Those local traffic lanes will be separated from the rest of the freeway traffic, so Surrey-Coquitlam motorists won't have to merge or potentially be snarled in other freeway traffic troubles. They'll effectively have their own bridge linking those cities.

The old Port Mann Bridge is to be dismantled in 2014.

Buses are also now running over the bridge for the first time in decades.

The new #555 ExpressBus also made its first run Saturday morning from Langley's Carvolth park-and-ride to Braid Station in New Westminster. It isn't yet stopping in Surrey because no transit exchange has been built at the 156 Street exit.

HOW YOU'LL PAY

Drivers won't have to stop at a toll booth or fumble for coins to pay to cross the new toll bridge once tolling starts Dec. 8.

Electronic tolling gantries above the bridge will detect the TReO windshield decal of most frequent users, automatically billing their linked credit card or bank account and sending them a statement at the end of each month.

TReO users will get the $1.50 half-price toll for one full year.

Those who don't sign up for a free decal will be detected by licence plate cameras and billed that way.

If they don't pay within seven days, an invoice will be mailed and they'll have to pay an extra $2.30 processing fee.

Those who refuse to pay will ultimately be denied insurance and licence renewals by ICBC and the province says it has agreements with other provinces and states to recoup unpaid tolls from out-of-province drivers.

PORT MANN BY THE NUMBERS

- Widest bridge in the world
- Longest main span crossing in western Canada; 2nd longest in North America; #29 worldwide
- 25 metres taller than Alex Fraser Bridge and five metres longer
- 850 metre long main bridge stayed by cables; Surrey approach is 360 metres; Coquitlam approach is 820 metres.
- 288 cables hold it up, which would cover 45 kilometres if stretched end to end.
- 157,000 cubic metres of concrete, 25,000 tonnes of asphalt, 28,000 tonnes of rebar and 13,000 tonnes of structural steel used

 

WHAT DO YOU THINK?

How will you react to tolls on the new Port Mann Bridge?
Tweet at @jeffnagel or using the #PortMann tag on Twitter.

 

 

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