METRO VANCOUVER — Commuters crossing the Fraser River can expect longer line-ups and further delays after a suspicious fire Sunday shut down the Pattullo Bridge for at least a month, diverting its 80,000 daily users to other routes and onto public transit.
TransLink spokesman Ken Hardie urged commuters to leave earlier or later for work and consider carpooling and telecommuting, predicting overcrowded conditions on the Port Mann and Alex Fraser bridges and George Massey Tunnel, as well as long waits for buses and SkyTrains.
The bridge, which connects Surrey and New Westminster, serves about 20 per cent of the traffic capacity south of the Fraser.
It will also be closed to pedestrians and cyclists.
The average traffic volume on the Port Mann Bridge is 127,000 cars a day, while the Alex Fraser Bridge sees 98,000 vehicles daily,
said Dave Crebo, spokesman for the B.C. Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure.
“It’s going to cause significant headaches for a lot of commuters,” Transportation Minister Kevin Falcon said Sunday.
“This is going to be a big challenge. We need people to double up and share rides and do their bit to help out while TransLink deals with this situation.”
TransLink plans to start SkyTrain at 4:30 a.m. and put on four more trains between Scott Road and Waterfront stations to ease the pressure during rush hour. Bicycle access to SkyTrain is suspended due to the increased traffic. Police are also warning they will step up enforcement on HOV lanes.
Surrey firefighters were called to the Pattullo Bridge at about 3 a.m. Sunday after motorists reported seeing smoke and flames billowing up from an 18-metre span of wooden trestles supporting the south end of the crossing.
For most of Sunday, firefighters tended to the hot spots on the trestles, which were still emitting smoke eight hours after the fire was reported.
Surrey RCMP Staff Sgt. Bruce Anderson said arson is suspected but hasn’t been confirmed.
Hardie said investigators will look into the possibility that homeless people, who often take shelter against the cold under the bridge, may have lit candles to warm themselves, leading to the fire. TransLink had previously fenced off the area under the trestles, which are covered in creosote to protect the wood from rotting.
“One of the suspicions is that somebody started a fire to keep warm, and the flame engaged the creosote pilings,” Hardie said.
The span will be demolished in the next few days and replaced, but the work could take four to six weeks, Hardie said.
The wooden section that caught fire was expected to be replaced shortly by TransLink in order to keep the bridge maintained for the next 10 years while a new six-lane crossing is built to take its place. The project, which is in the design stages, is 85-per-cent complete.
TransLink CEO Tom Prendergast said TransLink will work around the clock to get the job done and will use money out of the contingency fund to pay for it. He estimated the cost of the repairs will be “millions of dollars,” but said the cost to commuters is much higher.
Transit police are supporting Surrey RCMP in the investigation of the fire, and providing security on both sides of the crossing, said Transit police chief Ward Clapham. Clapham’s forces have built barricades on both sides of the bridge.
B.C. Ambulance Service has added three vehicles to its fleet, stationed in Surrey, said spokeswoman Kristy Hillen.
Falcon said an air ambulance is on standby to take patients to New Westminster’s Royal Columbian hospital, a centre for trauma care, and there’s a possibility of using a portable pre-fabricated truss bridge to allow emergency services to go between Surrey and New Westminster.
He said the fire underscores the province’s need to replace its aging infrastructure.
But Bruce Ralston, New Democrat MLA for Surrey-Whalley, said the anticipated gridlock signals that the Liberal government doesn’t consider alternative forms of transit a priority.
“This illustrates how far we’ve fallen behind south of the Fraser, and how little attention there are to transportation alternatives.”
Measuring 1,221 metres, or 4,006 feet, the Pattullo was completed in 1937.