New West groups seek changes to pedestrian and cyclists routes around new bridge

Walking up and down and all around isn’t a good way to encourage walking and cycling around the Pattullo Bridge.

That’s the message being delivered by groups like the New Westminster and Burnaby Walkers Caucus in response to proposed pedestrian and cyclist routes around the new bridge being built between New West and Surrey. Transportation Investment Corporation, a provincial Crown corporation, is working on the replacement of the Pattullo Bridge and expects construction of the new crossing to start this fall.

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“If you are going to build something, let’s not make it worse,” said Reena Meijer Drees, a member of the Walkers Caucus.

A recently released spring update touted the “improved walking and cycling paths” that will connect to the bridge and facilitate better east-west travel across the city,” but the pedestrian advocacy group isn't entirely sold on the plan.

“Our basic requirements for any pedestrian route are that that they be the most direct and the most at-grade possible,” said the Walkers Caucus in a letter to the province. “We favour straight routes, not meandering ‘scenic walks,’ and prefer level crossings (intersections, pedestrian-controlled crosswalks) as opposed to overpasses, especially in an urban context where traffic should be travelling at 50km/h at most. … Overpasses deter pedestrians as they add climbing, extra distance, and are conflict points for those on foot and those on wheels in the hairpin turns that overpasses inevitably include.”

Meijer Drees said the group’s biggest concern relates to the Central Valley Greenway across McBride Boulevard, which links Sapperton to Victoria Hill and to downtown New Westminster. With the exception of some concerns about an existing “blind corner” at McBride and East Columbia Street, she said the rest of the at-grade route is well-used – but the new route calls for a meandering, indirect pathway that includes an overpass.

“Our position is, why do you have an overpass here? Right now we have a level crossing, and it’s functional. Why are replacing this with an overpass?” she told the Record during a tour of the site. “I can tell you the reason: it’s because they want free-flowing traffic. Free-flowing traffic? Well, that reminds me of Stewardson, where instead of a crosswalk you now have an overpass, and it’s free-flowing traffic, which means everybody is doing 70 kilometres per hour instead of 50, and it’s this roaring chasm.”

Instead of an overpass, the Walkers Caucus says a level crossing would be more convenient for pedestrians and cyclists and help slow down traffic.

“It needs to be designed for 50 kilometers per hour, not 80,” said Meijer Drees.

Not all bad

Walkers Caucus Pattullo Bridge
Reena Meijer Drees, left, and Mary Wilson of the Walkers Caucus tour the area poised to be impacted by the Pattullo Bridge replacement proejct. - Theresa McManus

For the most part, the Walkers Caucus believes the plan for the Agnes Greenway across McBride Boulevard, which connects Victoria Hill (and beyond) to Qayqayt Elementary School, is a good proposal as this route is basically non-existent at this time, and it also likes the proposedconnection between the Agnes Greenway and the Central Valley Greenway. The group isn’t keen on the plan for three pedestrian/cyclist overpasses and said the province needs to do more consultation with stakeholders, given that the bridge design will impact pedestrian and cycling routes and connections across New Westminster for decades to come.

Some aspects of the plans are “excellent,” but others need a bit of tweaking, said Meijer Drees.

“They just need to take it a step further,” she said. “The mindset seems to be that it’s a highway and it’s designed for free-flowing traffic, which makes no sense in an urban context. Overpasses are great over highways, but we don’t want this to be a highway. That’s the whole point.”

Cyclists and city concerns

Garey Carlson, co-chair of the HUB New Westminster committee, said the group is concerned the proposed cycling connections are not direct, intuitive or efficient. In a letter to the province, HUB outlined a number of concerns about the plan.

“It appears that a lot of priority has been put into the flow and movement of motor vehicles, but not for pedestrians and people who cycle,” stated the letter. “The routes are indirect, inefficient and contain tight switchbacks and offsets.”

Mayor Jonathan Cote said the city’s biggest concern with the preliminary designs also relates to some of the greenway networks passing through the site.

“Our goal is to make sure those greenways are as direct and as suitable and as efficient as possible,” he said. “Some of the proposed routes are a bit circuitous and not as direct as we would like.”

Pattullo Bridge Walkers Caucus
Source: Theresa McManus

During a June 15 meeting with representatives from the Pattullo Bridge replacement project and the city’s transportation task force, Cote said city officials raised concern about how the greenway network connects between the Central Valley Greenway route through the site.

“It doesn’t appear to be as direct as we would like it to be,” he said. “It also appears to have some different grade changes where you go up a hill, down a hill, up a hill, which if you are a pedestrian or cyclist, that’s not ideal for a greenway. We’d like to see that minimized as much as possible. The city is also working on developing the Agnes Street Greenway in the city. The hope was that greenway would connect seamlessly with this project as well. So we do have some concerns with what is being proposed – the connections aren’t as ideal as we’d like.”

A complex project

Wendy Itagawa, executive director of the Pattullo Bridge replacement project, said the project is now in the implementation phase, which includes refinement of the design and construction. A contract was awarded to Fraser Crossing Partners in February, and construction is planned to start in the fall.

“It’s not finalized yet, but we are working towards that in the coming months,” she said of the design.

Walkers Caucus Pattullo Bridge
Surveying and geotechnical work is taking place as part of the Pattullo Bridge replacement project. - Theresa McManus

Currently, geotechnical and survey work is taking place, with construction anticipated to begin in the fall once all the required permits are in place, said Itagawa.

Itagawa said the project team is continuing to work with residents groups, local businesses and residents. It also plans to meet with the Walkers Caucus and HUB New Westminster in the next few weeks.

“We are open to hearing concerns and addressing where we can, potentially. I think those meetings will be good to sit down with them and see what we can do, if there is anything,” she told the Record. “We have come up with connections and solutions that we think are based on a lot of technical constraints and keeping in mind, balancing directness and prioritizing safety. I’m looking forward to meeting and discussing the concerns and seeing what we can do.”

Itagawa said the area on the New West side of the bridge is “very challenging” because of the area’s steep topography and existing road network. She said one of the key things conveyed by residents during the consultation process was a concern about the potential for speeding.

“There are a lot of traffic-calming measures within the design,” she said. “I think the urban integration piece of the roadway – there is a lot of landscaped medians and giving it a lot more of an urban feel. The environment feels different. We have been working on that. Obviously there is signage and those types of things too. But also there are visual indications that it is an urban setting and not a highway.”

Itagawa said overpasses are often the safety option for preventing conflict between vehicles and pedestrians/cyclists; the project team is willing to discuss concerns about the three pedestrian/cyclist overpasses with the Walkers Caucus and see if there is any way to address its concerns.

“It’s really important that we do this project well,” she said. “Certainly that’s a priority for us. I am well aware that I probably won’t make everyone happy, but I’m trying my best.”

Itagawa said the province is working closely with the city and will continue to seek its input and feedback on the designs over the next few months.

 “I’m hopeful that they are very open to conversations, both with the city and some of the community activists who are concerned about the project,” Cote said. “I think we all recognize we only have one shot to get the Pattullo Bridge project done right, particularly when it comes to these connections.”

In meetings with city officials, Cote said the project team noted that it is a “complicated site” because of grade changes and the presence of a SkyTrain tunnel.

“There was an openness to look at some different options that might better resolve some of the concerns, and certainly an openness to engage in the community over the next little while to see if there are some options,” he said.

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