When it comes to spending hard-earned taxpayers dollars (of which there is no other kind), why do we fail to appreciate the scale of expenditure when huge numbers are involved?  Why, in particular, do we criticize government waste when the numbers are small –  hello, Madame Speaker – but often suspend judgment when the numbers are big?

Take the Pattullo Bridge, for instance.

From the Royal City Record:

The City of New Westminster released the 33-page report, A Reasonable Approach: A Perspective on the Pattullo Bridge, on Wednesday.  … Jim Lowrie, the city’s director of engineering, said a new tolled four-lane bridge would cost $850 million and a rehabilitated four-lane bridge would cost $250 million. He said that compares to a $1.5 billion estimated cost of a new six-lane bridge.

Surrey Coun. Tom Gill, chair of the city’s transportation and infrastructure committee, told the Surrey NOW that … it should have six lanes. He said rehabilitating of the Pattullo Bridge isn’t viable and is a “poor choice” in utilizing taxpayer’s money.  … “I would go as far as to say that we should be concentrating on a six-lane bridge.”

Note that the dispute is over the number of lanes, not the number of dollars.  It’s assumed that we will spend whatever we need to get what we want, not what we can afford.  The difference in cost between four and six lanes looks to be a relatively minor consideration.  The dispute between New West and Surrey is more about downstream impacts than on the efficient use of hard-earned taxpayers’ dollars.

But look at that difference: $650 million – a number that is essentially incomprehensible for the average person.

Here’s a way of thinking about it.  A million, most people would agree, is a lot.  A million seconds, for instance, works out to be just under the equivalent of 12 days.

And 650 million seconds?  Just over 20 years.

Given the huge difference and what we could buy for $650 million – hello, Surrey light rail – shouldn’t the debate be about whether we could get by with a smaller structure if it served our needs, especially if we used market mechanisms to drive out waste?  Indeed, why isn’t the first part of the discussion about what would provide the best return for the least cost, rather than the number of lanes?

Of course, the same thing is going on with the Massey Crossing.  Just triple the numbers.


  1. “It’s assumed that we will spend whatever we need to get what we want, not what we can afford.”

    It is Commie talk like this that is ruining this country. What? Do you hate progress? And Freedom?

  2. I think plenty of people would be skeptical about these numbers. It does not make sense that a switch from four lanes to six would increase the price tag this much. And these estimates are from different sources, one the City of New West and the other Translink.

    I will say that I am in favour of a six lane replacement. Not to carry more traffic, in fact with tolling we can be certain that it will carry less, but rather to make it a more pleasant bridge to cross. In my mind, the Burrard Street Bridge ought to be the model. It is a perfectly urban 6/5 lane bridge and is in no way a surrender to motordom. But what needs to go is the loop de loops on the New West side. This bridge ought to come down to simple intersections, with maybe a partial overpass over Columbia. This would free up land for both development and an expansion of the park.

    And I don’t think that focusing on the product rather than the price is necessarily a bad idea. What people want is accessibility. They don’t want to spend a particular pot of money. Making decisions by starting with how much you have to spend does not necessarily make for great decisions. Like light rail in Surrey. This is not cost effective at all, really it is a very expensive exclusive bus lane, but you might end up with this if you started with the idea of spending $650 million.

    1. “And I don’t think that focusing on the product rather than the price is necessarily a bad idea.”

      The problem is the province only focuses on the product instead of the price when we’re building bridges for cars, and not when we’re building rapid transit. Cost, cost, cost is an inescapable mantra when it comes to transit, yet even at a time when taxpayers are subsidizing toll bridges to the tune of 70 million a year when those toll bridges were supposed to pay for themselves we don’t wake up and realize that car infrastructure is the definition of wasteful spending.

  3. Well, as long as we are talking about weird infrastructure choices, what about LRT for Surrey?

    Of course, this issue divides the transit community, but I always point the to the study Translink has done on technologies for the area (the only study, as far as I am aware).

    It says that the LRT option could cost almost the same as Skytrain plus BRT, and move far fewer people, far slower. Indeed, BRT alone is a much cheaper option than LRT with basically the same ridership potential.

    Why is it everyone ignores this study? Some people claim Translink is corrupt, or fudging the numbers or something. I think it has to do with an emotional reaction against development. People are scared Skytrain would mean towers, which it probably would; while LRT would mean midrises, which is pretty uncertain.

    So the idea is to build an expensive, subpar LRT system to prevent developers from wanting to develop.

    Sometimes democracy is exhausting.

    1. Funding was announced today for the SE LRT project in Edmonton. It will cost $1.8b to build this 13.1 km line that runs mostly on the surface with mostly simple street-level stops. It will take 30 minutes to travel 13 km, which works out to an average speed of 26 km/h.


      For comparison, it will cost $1.4b to build the 11 km Evergreen SkyTrain line, including a 2 km bored tunnel, $10m/km less than the surface LRT project in Edmonton. The Evergreen line will take 15 minutes to travel 11 km, which works out to an average speed of 44 km/h.

      The SE LRT is probably what Surrey’s council prefers. It probably doesn’t expect that LRT will cost more than SkyTrain, but this is in line with nearly every recent street-running LRT project in North America, including lines in Portland, Seattle, Calgary, Ottawa, and Toronto.

      1. I think at least in Toronto their subway option costs more than LRT. Of course, their subway option is much more intense than Skytrain.

  4. Gordon, wouldn’t a 6 lane bridge allow for more transit options though? A 4 lane practically guarantees the lanes would be for cars and trucks and slow down any buses coming across. Would not a 6 lane at least guarantee the option of a car-pool &/or bus lane, with perhaps safer options for cyclists and pedestrians?

    1. The Skybridge right beside the Patullo bridge means that bus lanes on the Patullo would be a pretty low priority if they are even needed.

  5. Well said ..

    of course $650M divided by 3M people is only $220 per person .. or divided by perhaps 1M people who would benefit its is $650 pp !

    Bridges are vital for people and transportation,but of course there are four other ones: Golden Ears, Port Mann, Alex Fraser and Massey Tunnel (soon bridge).

    Perhaps an even cheaper solution here is to make this bridge THREE lanes (with alternating middle lane) , non-truck and one for bikes/peds, or perhaps close it for cars altogether and make it for bike, peds and anglers only ! ALex Fraser is plenty wide and very close by for cars and trucks, hardly an inconvenience !

  6. I find that road construction numbers simply out of this world…Didn’t we rehabilitate the Lion’s gate bridge 10 years ago for something like 100 million? At that time wasn’t a tunnel based replacement for Lion’s gate bridge estimated at 600 mill? How in the world would it cost 1.5 billion to build a new bridge to Delta??? Or maybe real inflation is tad more than government is telling us about…

  7. Unclear why any government would even consider a new bridge or tunnel and not toll it ? The age of free roads, i.e. only gasoline tax, is coming to en end rapidly as cars get more fuel efficient, trucks use LNG and are more efficient and more and more electric cars will appear. Another funding model is required: road/bridge/tunnel tolls. It is just that many of the local politicians are too local and haven’t seen much of the world, i.e. very “provincial”. Road/tunnel/bridge tolls are now very common place all over the world, and somehow BC is different ?

    Perhaps a private firm should build the tunnel/bridge and get the right to collect toll for 40 years. Problem solved with no impact on the public purse.

  8. Gordon, these numbers seem completely out of whack. A bigger bridge isn’t much more expensive, since the labour and materials intensity doesn’t increase linearly with lane count. Hence why the new PMB is ten lanes, instead of a second 5 lane span.

    Translink’s numbers show a much lower incremental cost. See below:

    [new 4-lane] PRELIMINARY COST ESTIMATE ($M): $820–$845
    [new 6-lane] PRELIMINARY COST ESTIMATE: $985M–$1.1B

    So, $85M to $127.5M per lane, not $325M. Did Lowry include a Stormont Connector in the price of a bigger bridge and only a naked bridge in the 4 lane option?

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