March 6, 2015

Our Very Own Motordom Fail: “The Comedy and Tragedy of the Port Mann Bridge”

From Clark Williams-Derry at Sightline: 


The comedians in the Port Mann Bridge forecasting department are at it again: despite a 29 percent decline in traffic volumes on the Port Mann bridge between 2005 and 2014, the province is still predicting an immediate, sustained increase in traffic across the span:


Port Mann


That’s right—despite years and years of being wrong about the direction of future travel trends, they think they’ve finally spotted signs of a turnaround. You see, traffic volumes in December 2014 and January 2015 were a wee bit higher than they were in December 2013 and January 2014. And apparently that was enough for them to declare that..

“Traffic volumes on the Port Mann Bridge are stable and growing.”

and to make a forecast of…

“continual, long-term traffic growth on the Port Mann Bridge at a rate of about 2.5% per year.”

Of course, they could be right: just because they’ve been ridiculously, flat-out wrong about every single forecast they’ve made to date doesn’t mean that they haven’t spotted a new trend. Still, you’d think that years of making preposterous traffic forecasts would give them a little humility.

But maybe they can’t afford to be humble. At this point Port Mann has become a major sore point for provincial transportation policy. The bridge is hemorrhaging red ink, and because traffic hasn’t lived up to expectations tolls simply aren’t enough to cover the cost of operations and debt payments for construction. So at this point, the province probably thinks that anything other than complete confidence offers an opening to the critics.

To their credit, though, some of the province’s Port Mann forecasts are gradually inching towards reality. As Vaughn Palmer writes in the Vancouver Sunthe provincial government is no longer in flat-out denial about the bridge’s financial woes. Instead, they’ve finally owned to what has been obvious for a long time:

[T]he losses are expected to keep growing — to $101 million in the financial year beginning April 1, $102 million the following year and $106 million the year after that — which is the one when the tolling regime was originally slated to arrive at the break-even point.

But as the mounting losses point out, there really is a tragedy inside the comedy of Port Mann traffic forecasts. As losses mount, BC residents will keep paying for a project that they may not have needed, even as the real transportation priorities in the region—keeping transit running, and maintaining streets and bridges in good working order—get shortchanged.


Clark is only partly right in characterizing this.  The real tragedy is that hardly anyone is paying attention to the “hemorrhaging red ink” of Port Mann even as TransLink is being vilified, the vision and direction of this region (a beacon for many in how to accommodate growth in a livable and more sustainable way) is at risk, and the Premier’s unilateral and unexpected announcement that the Massey Bridge will proceed – no vote, no relationship to the regional transportation plan (or any plan, for that matter) – indicates we have learned nothing from Port Mann except to double down.

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  1. In fairness, how do TransLink’s projections for the equally mis-forecast Golden Ears Bridge compare? Are the financial implications for TransLink over the Golden Ears as big as for provincial taxpayers over the Pt. Mann?

    It would also be interesting to know total crossings trend of Golden Ears, Port Mann and Patullo to get a complete picture of Fraser River crossing trends in that part of the region.

  2. And {yawn}, where is that crackerjack advocate for the taxpayer, the CTF and Mr. Bateman?

    Is it possible that road-and-bridge costs must not be scrutinized, due to some political view; but transit must be opposed by any means, evil or not, due to that same political view?

  3. The ‘nyah nyah’ tone to all these Port Mann Bridge posts and stories is tedious and counterproductive. The projections used to justify its construction were not overtly fraudulent, just willfully glossing of the Pattullo Bridge avoidance effect. Translink and Ministry gambled and lost. Unless we can refinance the agreement, let’s write this error off and move on.

    The focus should now be on making sure this same expensive mistake is avoided for the new Fraser crossing, which so far looks to be the same decision based on the same disproven assumptions and projections. Can we channel some of this schadenfreude to the more useful purpose of overhauling this bridge option?

    1. It’s a little hard to move on from a vastly over-engineered 10-lane bridge that would never be justified in any other middling city.

  4. How much money does the New Point Grey Road make? What about Granville Street? Geography dictates that bridges are really just an extension of our road network. Expecting them to turn a profit is silly.

    1. There are bridges, then there are monsters. We need to note here that the traffic counts into and out of the downtown core which is crowned with bridges decreased significantly (over 15%) while the population virtually doubled. Vehicle km travelled have been decreasing all over the continent, but somehow the Port Mann feasibility studies (if there ever was any) escaped that and a lot of other important facts.

    2. It’s not about the continued rosy outlook and the expectation that the bridge should make money. Its about the dumb decision to build such a monstrosity at all. The current bridge could have been tolled and the result would have been the same. All the bridges in the region should have variable tolls just like in Stockholm. Then we would see some big changes in traffic volumes and we likely wouldn’t have to build that Port Mann or build the 99 bridge. At the same time we should still have the PST increase to pay for transit as people would likely jump to transit or cycling thus requiring the money. Besides the road network is still vastly subsidized by property taxes and provincial taxes anyways. This would chip away at this.

    3. The property tax revenue raised from the removal of through connections on Point Grey Road are probably quite considerable. The property tax loses from freeway construction, on the other hand, are quite immense

      1. While one might be impressed that the Vision majority managed to add millions to the paper worth of the already wealthy on PGR, I suspect you would find that the new Port Mann has added value to more homes south of the Fraser, just as a new Massey Bridge will add to properties in Ladner and Tsawassen.

        1. The reality of property value increases along Pt Grey Rd is that they turn into property tax increases that benefit taxpayers in other parts of the city.

          (The same thing happened when the city reconfigured the roads in the West End the same way.)

          The cost to reconfigure Pt. Grey Rd. was miniscule in comparison to projects like the new bridges.

  5. I think it is worth pointing out that the modeling software that most engineering firms and transportation departments use to do their projections is relativity simple. Generally the model is based on the assumption that as population, jobs and economic activity goes up, so do traffic volumes. This made sense during the second half of the 20th century, however society and human behavior has shifted, but no one has reprogramed the model. That is why the projection lines are always pretty much the same and why most highway and bridge projects across North America have been making incorrect projections for the last 5-10 years.

    Unless you reprogram the model to change the underlying assumptions the projection will continue to be wrong. The models, as they are currently structured, are incapable of predicting what we have seen in downtown Vancouver. The population and jobs has doubled, yet traffic volumes have fallen. I’m not sure why the engineering profession hasn’t figured this out yet.

  6. One needs to take at least a 50+ year view with bridges and tunnels AND count for commercial use in a port oriented area. Counting bridge use over the last 4 years is therefore somewhat meaningless. Canada really has only one Pacific port of size in decent enough weather, namely Vancouver and area (30+ ports !!) and to grow those one needs MORE pipeline, road and rail infrastructure. It is about job growth in commercial areas, not primarily about people movement only. That is the difference between groups that oppose infrastructure and those that want it: jobs. The software or TV industry doesn’t provide enough jobs downtown Vancouver. Some politicians, and many voters, actually understand that. That is why there is far more job growth south of the Fraser: cheaper land, better infrastructure, pro-growth taxation policies.

    Since this so-called “decongestion” transit plan is very very bus focused one should lobby for a dedicated lane for fast buses at least on new Massey tunnel, new Patullo bridge or PM bridge. We also need to lobby hard for subways or rail links where we have B-lines today: along Hastings, to UBC, along 41st, to W-Van and to N-Van over to be widened bridges, to Langley from Surrey, to Delta, to White Rock .. as that is where the current plan is weak, very weak, and that is why I call it a band-aid. It will not congest, i.e. give enough incentives (or penalties) to move from car to transit. Only a rapid (rail based) system would do that, coupled with road tolls.

    1. As long as we are on the facts theme (thank you, factchecker), let’s look at this oft-repeated claim that the Mayor’s plan is bus-focused. Wobbly or not, buses represent a very small portion of the plan. Voony did some good analysis, full credit to him, as this is his data. Full blog post here:

      Have a look at the blue segments in the pie charts. They represent bus and B line spending, whether capital cost or Translink contribution. See how small they are? Perhaps 10% of capital, and 15% of Translink contribution.

  7. Thomas, you shouldn’t read this because it contains facts, and I understand you’re allergic to those. If you look at the Metro Vancouver bulletin on jobs
    you’ll see that there were 130,000 jobs added in the region over 10 years. North of the Fraser added 80,000 jobs and south of the Fraser added 50,000. However many times you repeat that there are more new jobs in Surrey than in Vancouver, or south of the Fraser more than north of the Fraser, it still won’t be true.

    1. % matter. You are right in absolute numbers.

      See this report here .. decent stats .. page 9:

      South of Fraser: population growth: 50%, employment growth: 126%
      North of Fraser: population growth: 32%, employment growth: 71%

      Even by your own stats North of Fraser has less (job) growth (as a % of population) as it has a far higher population, namely roughly 1.4M people vs. 760,000 south of Fraser .. so % wise it has LESS job growth.

      1. Actually, when you’re talking about designing effective transit systems for growing population, percentages are confusing and unhelpful. Transit systems move people, and it’s the number of people, and jobs that you should be designing a system to accommodate.

        The population and employment growth you refer to above only show the % of projected growth (not actual growth) because it’s trying to make a case for transit to serve south of the Fraser (which is needed already, and will be needed more in future). There are 780,000 jobs north of the Fraser, so a 71% increase would add over 550,000 more jobs. There are under 250,000 south of the Fraser, so even if there really is 126% employment growth to 2041 (and that’s a lot more than Metro Vancouver expect), it’s only 312,000 more jobs.

        Population growth over 10 years south of the Fraser was 143,000 but job growth was only 50,000. Population growth north of the Fraser was more – 180,000, and job growth was 77,000. So South of the Fraser performed very poorly in growing jobs as a proportion of population growth compared to north of the Fraser.

        However and wherever jobs and population growth plays out over the next 25 years, it’s obvious we need better transit to serve the region. Whether we can fit that growth onto the roads we have (even if the bridges are wider) is doubtful in the extreme. More and better transit is a much better solution. While I appreciate your willingness to pay a lot more tax to accomplish that, I don’t think you’ll persuade the rest of the population in the few days remaining. So at least you can vote ‘yes’ to getting some of those necessary improvements started. Voting no will ensure nothing happens on any transit improvements until another mechanism can be found to fund it.

  8. There’s no question that many Vancouver residents are deeply troubled that Surrey is soon to become the larger municipality, and therefore the financially and possibly politically more powerful city. Rob Ford from the amalgamated suburb comes to mind. Because of this we will almost certainly never see amalgamation in our lifetimes.

    This is yet another reason that Vancouver is catatonic and desperate that this power shift to Vancouvers’ wishes go through. Municipal power and power to tax, through tolling roads, etc. A new paradigm.

    Staunching the flow of traffic only leads to what we used to see at the old Port Mann and still see at the Massey Tunnel and both ends of the Lions Gate Bridge, congestion and pollution from idle vehicles. The Highway 1 reconstruction and the new Port Mann Bridge have drastically reduced idling, time wasting and pollution. For those benefits alone the projects must be considered successes.

    The Canada Line is clearly a success too. It should have been built with longer stations and also a station at 16th Avenue, in my opinion. Other rapid transit lines should also be developed. As should bridge and road expansion projects.

    1. Exactly. As stated elsewhere I’d happily pay 9 or even 10% PST if we got RAPID transit where we have B-lines today, which will continue to clog car traffic and will result in more buses stuck in traffic. Living at UBC I see no benefits, ditto with folks in N-Van or W-Van or E-Van. They get nothing in return for paying more.

      Will they toll Pattulo bridge when it is finished ? Will they have a dedicated bus lane on PM bridge in lieu of a train ? Lack of parking fee increases, lack of road tolls and lack of more rapid transit from E-Van, N-Van, W-Van or UBC will ensure we do not get any decongestion for decades !

      It is a weak plan, and certainly not a decongestion plan.

      Just wait until they tear down the viaducts. Traffic chaos will ensue. Where is the Hastings subway by then ? UBC’s highrises, N-Van’s (and soon E-Van’s) highrise construction will continue unabated without any meaningful rapid transit.

      This is leadership ? This is vision ? This is good governance ?

  9. This updated forecast is fascinating in it’s own right. If I’m reading this properly, traffic on the bridge isn’t expected to reach it’s previous ~2006 peak again until ~2035? Presumably that’s due to some combination of personal preference changes, land use changes, availability of competing travel options, demographic changes and the pricing of the bridge itself.

    If nearly all of those factors excluding bridge pricing were expected to happen regardless of the investment (a larger PM likely hasn’t fundamentally changed regional personal preferences, the availability of travel alternatives and demographic shifts…I will accept that the investment itself likely will influence land use patterns), than wouldn’t the logical conclusion be that similar results could have been achieved by simply tolling the existing structure? If the 2015 forecast assumes a tolled Pattullo, this is particularly relevant, as it would even reflect some recapture from travelers that have migrated to the free bridge. In light of the size of the investment, would the differences in forecast that we now see have lead to the same investment decision? Or at the very least, the same P3 procurement decision with the Province accepting revenue risk?

    To my knowledge, port access was the stated driver of investment (Gateway)…so what do those lines (actual and forecast) look like for trucks only, 2006/2007/2015? If the 2015 forecast has a similar trajectory as all traffic (taking 30 years to reach pre-investment levels), what would the Provincial contribution/subsidy be for each truck crossing? Even if truck traffic is expected to increase substantially, were there other approaches that would have been more cost effective to facilitate goods movement (tolling the existing structure, incentives for increased inter-modal investment directly at the Ports bypassing the road network, etc.)

    Lots of ‘if’s’ above….the next 5 years will be interesting to watch. Sure looks like this is shaping up to be a good case study/review in project justification, procurement and public finance. In light of the PM details thus far, and the Auditor General’s report on BC P3 arrangements broadly, I hope there’s at least a real discussion of procurement alternatives for the Massey Bridge, even if the project decision itself is a foregone conclusion.