The new commute: congestion relief expected across Metro Vancouver

By Jeff Nagel – BC Local News

September is traditionally gridlock month for Metro Vancouver commuters as students return to classes and summer vacations for workers end.

Road and transit veterans know to expect bridge approaches like parking lots and a sardine can-like experience on buses and SkyTrain.

But it may be a whole new – and perhaps easier – commute this fall, thanks to a raft of changes.

The newly opened Golden Ears Bridge is now taking pressure off other bridges spanning the Fraser River.

About 21,000 vehicles have been using the new crossing each weekday since tolls took effect in mid-July.

“The traffic we’ve got going over the Golden Ears Bridge is equivalent to a third of the Pattullo Bridge or a quarter of the Port Mann traffic,” noted TransLink’s Drew Snider.

He expects even more motorists who normally use the Port Mann Bridge and Highway 1 will divert to the Golden Ears-Lougheed Highway corridor when the new Pitt River Bridge fully opens – potentially late this fall.

Meanwhile, the now-open Canada Line from Richmond and the airport to Vancouver is already capturing more riders than anticipated – some 80,000 a day so far and officials think it may top 100,000 far ahead of the target date of 2013.

The new rapid transit line’s capacity is the equivalent of 10 lanes of traffic and should take pressure off bridges like the Oak and Knight Street crossings.

Add those two together and the diverted vehicle traffic off regular routes is significant, Snider said.

Commuters who can make use of the two just-finished mega-projects stand to enjoy significantly shortened commutes.

Regular travellers between Surrey/Langley and Maple Ridge/Pitt Meadows are now saving 30 to 40 minutes versus their old routes if they take the tolled Golden Ears bridge.

People who can now use the Canada Line can get to downtown from Richmond in just 22 minutes reliably.

Users of the Expo and Millennium SkyTrain lines are also seeing improvements.

TransLink is in the midst of receiving 48 more SkyTrain cars that promise to boost SkyTrain capacity by 30 per cent once they’ve all arrived, by February.

Passengers will also see longer trains in use to battle SkyTrain congestion.

More buses have also been steadily arriving through the year – the fleet is expanding by more than 120 buses, trolleys, community shuttles and HandyDarts.

And major changes in bus service are also coming.

The big one hits Sept. 7 when bus routes from south of the Fraser to downtown Vancouver are realigned to connect to the Canada Line.

It eliminates one-seat rides on buses that used to go from White Rock, Delta and parts of Surrey to Vancouver, forcing those passengers to transfer to the new SkyTrain line.

Despite estimates the overall commute will be five to 10 minutes shorter, many who prefer the convenience of the old no-transfer trip aren’t happy.

But TransLink officials say the change will allow a boost in service on the shortened bus routes connecting to Canada Line.

“You’ll see more frequency because we’re not extending those coaches over a long route,” TransLink spokesman Ken Hardie said. “You’ll see services that used to operate every 30 minutes operating every 15.”

That will give commuters more flexibility, he said. Getting to the South Surrey Park and Ride to catch a bus on time will become less critical than before.

The bus ride from south of the Fraser to the Canada Line’s Bridgeport Station should also be less congested than previously.

A dedicated bus-only lane built along Highway 99 in Richmond will allow northbound buses to scoot past jammed traffic.

The new lane runs north of Westminster Highway and may be a challenge for motorists merging or leaving Highway 99 – they’ll have to take care to avoid buses because the bus lane crosses on and off ramps that connect from Highway 91 and Shell Road.

One tip for using the Canada Line for connecting riders from south of the Fraser: Expect busy northbound trains at Bridgeport coming from the other Richmond stations. But every second train comes from the airport and should have more room.

In Vancouver, bus riders heading to UBC may find better options this year because of increased service on east-west routes like 41st and 33rd Avenues, which also connect to the Canada Line.

That may take some pressure off the Broadway corridor, Hardie said.

The Golden Ears Bridge has also opened up new routes.

Langley and eastern Surrey residents can now ride 200 Street buses north over the Golden Ears and connect to the West Coast Express – an option that has started to draw a steady stream of riders.

It may even become too popular.

Seven new West Coast Express cars are on order to help keep pace with demand, but they’re a year away.

“We could see significant crowding on West Coast Express,” Hardie cautioned.

Another big upgrade later this year should see TransLink launch its new SeaBus, the MV Burrard Pacific Breeze.

With three vessels in the water, commuters will be able to catch a boat across Burrard Inlet every 10 minutes instead of every 15 during peak hours.

It’s not clear how long the higher level of SeaBus service will last, however.

Only TransLink’s most costly proposed 10-year plan – now considered unlikely to pass — allows three-vessel operation. More modest scenarios would roll SeaBus service back to just two vessels as soon as the Olympics are over.

The recession may also ease the commute this fall for motorists.

B.C. Trucking Association president Paul Landry estimates there may be 10 per cent fewer trucks hauling cargo on the roads now compared to a year ago due to the downturn.

He said the combination of the Golden Ears Bridge and Canada Line openings should help lighten traffic on other routes.

“That’s got to have an impact,” Landry said.

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