From the Vancouver Metro newspaper:

Its historical significance and sheer wow factor is unquestioned.

But everything else about the new Port Mann Bridge is fair game for sustainable transportation advocates.

Gordon Price – Simon Fraser University director of the City Program and board member of the International Centre for Sustainable Cities – says the government missed a golden opportunity to promote smart regional growth when the 10-lane, $3.3-billion megabridge between Coquitlam and Surrey officially opens Saturday.

Instead the project promotes urban sprawl, car use and champions outdated, 20th century “motordome” thinking, flying in the face of emerging trends indicating decreased car use and more demand for public transportation.

“The most frustrating thing is that [the Port Mann] doesn’t do what they said it was going to do: reduce congestion,” said Price. “The claim is disingenuous when you pass on the opportunity to include rapid transit within the budget. When that happens, expanding the capacity for cars [without an alternative] increases the demand. If people can travel farther in the same amount of time from cheaper land, they will.”

The original Port Mann, which cost $25 million in 1964, opened the region up to expansion south of the Fraser River.

That growth strained the road network, creating a situation today where the old five-lane Port Mann Bridge is congested in both directions 13 hours of the day.

Price doesn’t dispute that a replacement was required and doesn’t doubt commuters will give the bridge plenty of use despite its tolls.

But he calls the final design overkill and unnecessary.PMB_2

“Why do we need the world’s widest bridge when all the planners said eight lanes would do?” he said. “I doubt you’ll ever need all 10 lanes. It’s today’s Granville Street Bridge, which never reached its designed capacity and never will.”  …

Forecasting done last year by Steer Davies Gleave, for Port Mann operator Transportation Investment Corporation, showed that traffic volumes on the existing Port Man have steadily decreased from 2005 to 2010, by approximately 8,000 vehicles in that period.

A Frontier Group report on driving behaviour in the U.S. shows the average annual number of vehicle-miles travelled by people between the ages of 16 and 34 have dropped 23 per cent from 2001 and 2009.

While the recession is a factor in both cases, the Frontier Group states high gas prices, licensing laws, improved alternative transportation (public transportation, primarily) and changing attitudes about driving and the environment represent the start of a generational shift.

Meanwhile, increasingly aggressive urban planning on a municipal level emphasizing livable communities, public transit and non-vehicle infrastructure is dramatically changing driving behaviour.

The City of Vancouver, for example, has reduced traffic volumes in the downtown core to 1960s levels.

Price feels governments have been slow to react because leaders grew up in driving cultures and new statistics showing a shift away from that mentality are so dramatic “it’s easy to be skeptical”.

Yet around the world, recession, gas prices, greener vehicles and driving trends are starving tax-fueled highway departments of cash while privately-operated, tolled projects (such as Brisbane, Australia’s Clem 7 and Airport Link tunnels) are going bankrupt.

Locally, the Golden Ears Bridge, opened in 2009, has fallen well short of average traffic projections.

And that doesn’t factor in future transit improvements and the impact promising technologies, like driverless cars, may have on congestion.

“Something is changing,” said Price, who admits the mounting evidence is too young to form any concrete conclusions on.

Still, it begs the question: Are big-ticket highway megaprojects – traditional signifiers of economic development, regional growth and progress – like the Port Mann a dying breed?

“Bingo,” said Price. “I just heard someone mention the other day that even the Ministry of Transportation knows these are last big highway projects they’ll every be able to do in the Lower Mainland.”

So be sure to take a snapshot of the new Port Mann, it could be the last of its kind.

“Now that it’s built, we should celebrate it,” said Price. “Give the engineers full marks, it’s an impressive work of art.”