Is roadworks project heading in the wrong direction?

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 May, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 28 May, 2007, 12:00am


A billion-dollar road project will do one of two things - ease the city's increasingly unbearable traffic congestion or turn the region into a motoring mess.

The C$3 billion (HK$21.74 billion) Gateway Programme is a planned gigantic road expansion from the eastern tip of the city to Fraser Valley where much of the growing population has settled.

For residents and politicians, the issue is whether making better roads will lead to a better city. It would appear to be a simple proposition. Faster-moving traffic means an easier commute, right? But should a city be aspiring to making roads better for drivers?

Critics say that putting more vehicles on the road ignores the reality of global warming. Some hardliners say roads should be reserved for bicycles and buses.

The debate over who should be served by the region's roads is one that the transport industry says it has been losing for too many years. For 20 years, infrastructure had veered towards supporting public transport, said Paul Landry, head of British Columbia province's Trucking Association.

In the past 10 years, the average travel time for trucks in the greater city area has increased 30 per cent. As Mr Landry points out, that is not only 30 per cent more trucks needed to meet demand, but also an increase of that same amount of emissions from those vehicles.

And so, the provincial government has agreed to build new roads, expand current congested ones, build twin bridges and lengthen highways.

The projects are expected to begin over a six-year period from next year after final environmental assessments, where opponents can continue to press their case. With federal government backing, the province has been the main force behind the programme, arguing that road expansion is vital to developing it as a passage for North American trade to and from Asia.

The city's ports are keen to capitalise on the increasing arrival of goods from China and India and provide an efficient transport system for forwarding those products.

While port arrivals are increasing, the roads around the waterfront have not improved. In the 1960s and 1970s, community groups, including activists in Chinatown, galvanised in the so-called Great Freeway Fight and successfully kept highways out of the downtown area.

The provincial capital remains almost unique among North American cities as one of the few major urban centres without a highway through its core.

Geography has constrained development. East towards the Fraser Valley has been the only way to expand.

But air quality in the fast-growing regions of Surrey and Abbotsford has worsened over the past decade.

It was only after the provincial government unveiled an ambitious plan earlier this year to reduce carbon dioxide emissions faster than any other jurisdiction in North America that the contradictions posed by the Gateway Programme became clear and reinvigorated its opponents.

'The whole thing about climate change has become much bigger on the awareness level and there is the realisation that this [project] doesn't fit at all,' said Deming Smith, of Better Environmentally Sound Transportation group.

But despite bitter debate there is the real possibility that neither side will emerge the winner.