Port Mann tolls start to steer drivers to free crossings

Bigger traffic distortion effect predicted to hit Metro Vancouver commuters in January

A tale of traffic cameras: Port Mann Bridge (top) had relatively sparse volume shortly after 8 a.m. Tuesday

Traffic congestion has worsened at the remaining free crossings of the Fraser River as many motorists avoid paying tolls that took effect Saturday on the new Port Mann Bridge.

The new bridge officially opened with eight lanes Dec. 1 but this is the first week traffic distortions caused by tolling the Highway 1 crossing are starting to become apparent.

Commuters reported longer delays reaching the Pattullo and Alex Fraser bridges, while traffic was lighter on the Port Mann compared to last week when it was free.

Traffic reporter Kim Seale of radio station News 1130 said congestion in New Westminster heading for the Pattullo or Queensborough bridges was “insane” Monday – the worst she’s ever seen – and Highway 99 lines for the Massey Tunnel are also longer.

But she expects traffic jams to worsen – particularly after holidays end and more normal commuting patterns resume in January and many of the 500,000 drivers who signed up early for TReO burn up their credits for 20 free crossings of the Port Mann.

“The seventh of January – that’s what I think is going to be the D-Day when we’ll see a big change in traffic,” Seale predicted. “I can’t imagine what it’s going to look like then.”

That, she added, assumes good conditions – throw in some stalls, accidents or a snowstorm and motorists can expect gridlock on untolled routes.

Seale noted January is also when Highway 1 users may get “sticker shock” after opening their first monthly TReO bills and think harder about ways to beat the tolls, by trying other routes or times or perhaps through car-pooling.

A regular daily user of the Port Mann paying the $1.50 introductory toll each way faces a monthly bill of at least $60, rising to $120 after the half-price TReO discounts end next December, or in March for those who fail to register by then. (Frequent users can get an unlimited monthly pass for $75, rising to $150 in 2014.)

Seale also expects heavier traffic through South Surrey on routes like 32nd or 8th Avenues as drivers from points east head for untolled Highway 99 instead of Highway 1.

“People will go out of their way to save that money, they really will,” she said, but adds there is no free ride any more.

“We’re all going to pay for it,” Seale said. “You might not think you’re going to pay for it by avoiding the Port Mann. But you’re going to pay for it sitting in longer lineups – we all will.”

Transportation Investment Corp. spokesman Max Logan said “variability” in traffic volumes on the Port Mann and the untolled routes are expected in the coming weeks.

“We are expecting drivers are going to experiment with the different routes available to them,” he said, adding traffic patterns should stabilize after “a couple of months.”

The province had projected only a one per cent increase in traffic at the Pattullo Bridge as a result of Port Mann tolls compared to if the new bridge hadn’t been built.

Logan said Monday evening volume on the tolled Port Mann was about the same as in late November, when it was still running congested with five lanes of traffic.

He said they still expect the “vast majority” of traditional Highway 1 commuters will stick with the Port Mann and pay tolls because of the time savings they’ll enjoy, while some drivers who avoided the crossing because of congestion will come back to it.

Seventy-five per cent of vehicles crossing the Port Mann in rush hour Monday were registered, Logan said, dropping to 60 to 70 per cent at off-peak times.

“That’s terrific for us,” he said. “The implementation from a system point of view is going very smoothly.”

Drivers who signed up just before the Nov. 30 deadline for the 20 free trips still get the $30 account credit and all applicable discounts, even if they haven’t received their TReO windshield decal. Their cars will be identified by licence plate cameras until the decals are installed.

The $30 credits expire May 31.

Drivers who registered as HOV lane users also get a 25 per cent discount when they travel in HOV lanes with two occupants at peak hours – 6:30 to 8:30 a.m. and 4 to 6 p.m.

Regular users of the Golden Ears Bridge can also return their transponder for that bridge – the TReO decal works for both crossings.

TransLink officials said it’s too early to tell if the Port Mann tolls are resulting in more traffic using the Golden Ears Bridge, which is also tolled.

Traffic has flowed well over the Port Mann since the extra three lanes opened Dec. 1, but congestion persists in the Coquitlam-Burnaby sections of the freeway where Highway 1 construction continues through 2013.

Phase two of the project includes adding one highway lane in each direction from Brunette Avenue to the Cassiar Tunnel in Vancouver and interchange upgrades at Gaglardi, Sprott/Kensington, Willingdon, Grandview Highway and Boundary Road.

 

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