VANCOUVER, B.C. — The B.C. government formally launched the controversial South Fraser Perimeter Highway project Tuesday, confirming it will be built and operated as a public-private partnership, but saying it will not be a toll road, according to a story published by Canada.com.
The province has called for qualified teams to design, finance, build, operate and maintain the highway, less than a week after it got the environmental go-ahead. The four-lane truck route is to run about 40 km along the south shore of the Fraser River, from Highway 99 and Deltaport in the west to the Trans-Canada Highway east of the Port Mann Bridge. It will skirt the edge of environmentally sensitive Burns Bog, remove farmland from the Agricultural Land Reserve, require expropriation of residential properties in several communities in Delta and Surrey, and run over archeological sites containing the remains of aboriginal settlements.
Transportation Minister Kevin Falcon said the project has undergone significant scrutiny over five years, but he was confident the government had respected the concerns of its opponents.
“I think it’s important to remember that the project is to deal with a huge problem,” Falcon said. “The local roads are totally congested by truck traffic. Remember, on any major project, you’ll have opponents.”
The highway is part of the province’s Gateway program, which includes twinning the Port Mann Bridge across the Fraser, widening the Trans-Canada from Vancouver to Langley, improving existing roads for a North Fraser Perimeter Highway, and building a new bridge over the Pitt River. The Gateway program has been championed by transportation-related industries, especially regional port authorities, and fits into the Liberal government’s plans to turn Metro Vancouver into a container-trade gateway between Asia and North America. Eliza Olson, president of the Burns Bog Conservation Society, said she is still concerned about the threat the highway poses to the bog’s ecosystem.
“They’re not addressing our issues,” Olson told The Vancouver Sun. “They don’t want to know what the issues are.”
Among other things, the society is concerned about the welfare of sandhill cranes, which use the area as a migration feeding ground, and occasionally as breeding grounds. Society members have launched an international campaign against the project and are gathering signatures on a petition to protect the bog. But Falcon said Olson’s concerns aren’t valid because the highway won’t affect the bog.
“There’s a lot of work that’s been done in respect to minimizing impact on the environment,” he said. “That was the point of going ahead with an environmental impact assessment.”
The call for qualifications went out from the province’s Partnerships B.C. agency, and Falcon confirmed the highway will very likely be built as a public-private partnership. Tolls weren’t a feasible option for the highway, Falcon said, because there wouldn’t be enough traffic to earn a return, unlike the twinned Port Mann Bridge, which will require payment of tolls. The highway got the green light last week from the province’s Environmental Assessment Office.
Partnerships B.C. said the highway “will relieve heavily congested city streets and reroute truck traffic away from residential neighbourhoods, thereby improving safety related to freight movement and restoring municipal local roads as community connectors.” It said the highway is to be finished in 2012. The deadline for submissions under the qualification process is Sept. 29.
In contrast, the Golden Ears Bridge, which is now more than half complete, will be tolled, according to Canada.com. The $808-million bridge is expected to open in June 2009, and it will be the first tolled bridge in the Lower Mainland, a Fraser River crossing that will connect Maple Ridge and Langley.
Tolls will range from as low as $1.45 per trip for a motorcycle rider to as high as $9.75 per trip for a large truck. The cost depends on whether drivers register in advance and whether they have rented a “Quickpass transponder.” The plan is to toll the bridge without booths or attendants, using transponders and cameras that measure vehicles and read their licence plate numbers. Drivers who lease Quickpass transponders will pay the lowest rates, with $2.85 expected for a crossing in a car, $5.75 in a small truck and $8.60 in a large truck. Costs rise by about 60 cents for vehicles without the transponder and another 50 cents for vehicles that don’t register in advance at all.
The transponders will allow drivers to pass over the bridge at highway speeds, without slowing down, said Cummings. The transponders will be available early next year, and Cummings said he hopes many people will sign up for one. One problem will be out-of-province vehicles. The tolling group has a deal with ICBC to check licence plate numbers, to track down and bill unregistered local drivers. Deals have also been struck to track and bill cars registered in Alberta and Washington State. However, there are no deals as yet with other provinces. Cars from the rest of Canada or the U.S. will be able to pass without being billed.
Cummings said he expects more than 99.9% of traffic will be local. There is also the possibility that the tracking system could be used to watch for stolen cars, cars with expired insurance, or drivers with expired licences. Cummings said nothing had been decided, but discussions were underway with police about the issue. It is also possible that trucking firms and families may be able to register their transponders with more than one vehicle, so it can be moved to whichever car or truck is going over the bridge. About 45,000 vehicles a day – about 10% of them heavy trucks – are expected to use the bridge after opening day.
The Albion Ferry, which connects the same two communities, will shut down for good – just weeks after the bridge begins operations, said Cummings. To soften the blow, the first month of service on the bridge will be toll-free.
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