The Pattullo Bridge opened 75 years ago this month but was not built to modern standards to withstand earthquakes and the scouring action of the Fraser River.

Pattullo Bridge closure a risk as wait for new span drags on

Aging span vulnerable to quakes, river scouring, ship collisions

The Pattullo Bridge might have to be shut down for years until a replacement is built if TransLink determines it can’t be upgraded to address growing concerns about seismic and other safety risks.

That’s one of the outcomes officials say is possible if Surrey and New Westminster councils continue to clash over the size and positioning of a Pattullo replacement.

TransLink has embarked on a new assessment of the 75-year-old bridge, to be finished early in 2013, that will determine if it’s even possible to perform a major seismic and safety upgrade.

The aim would be to extend its life by at best a couple more decades at a rough cost of $150 million.

The bridge would be reduced to three lanes with a counterflow to end the hazard posed by its narrow width.

Bob Paddon, executive vice-president for strategic planning, said TransLink’s preference is still an all-new replacement bridge, which might be tolled, but said without agreement between the cities the decision was made to look again at rehabilitation.

“If we couldn’t rehabilitate to get to the level of seismic standard we’re seeking, we’d have to give some consideration as to whether you move on closure and what that would look like,” he said.

Paddon said closure is “extremely unlikely” but bridge conditions could make it necessary.

A consultant report to TransLink in 2007 warned “the bridge is vulnerable to collapse even under moderate earthquakes and is in urgent need of retrofitting.”

The bridge’s ability to withstand a quake could be improved if rehabilitation is feasible, but the bridge’s engineering limitations mean it couldn’t reach modern seismic standards.

An earthquake isn’t the only threat.

The bridge was designed when river conditions weren’t well known and fast-moving water scours away at the bridge’s piers and foundations.

Its design also leaves the bridge vulnerable to impact from a ship and its deck steel, concrete and some other components are corroding or deteriorating.

“The bridge is safe,” Paddon stressed, adding there’s ongoing monitoring.

He said the Pattullo is a key transportation link on which local economies have been built and the crossing is needed.

Surrey has pushed for a six-lane replacement but New Westminster opposes anything larger than four lanes and argues a different alignment may be needed to keep traffic from clogging local streets.

“We know we can fill it at one end but we have to be able to empty it at the other end,” New Westminster Mayor Wayne Wright said.

He said he believes TransLink has taken his city’s concerns to heart and that an agreement on replacement is within reach.

Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts said closing the bridge would cause unimaginable traffic congestion.

“If you take that crossing away it would be disastrous,” she said.

Watts said the Pattullo must be replaced, adding whether it needs to be four or six lanes depends on the final configuration.

“We don’t see how that bridge can be rehabilitated,” added Anita Huberman, executive director of the Surrey Board of Trade.

If a new bridge is built, the earliest it could open is 2020.

TransLink hopes to get the cities on board and approve a funded plan by fall of 2014, triggering six years of work.

The Pattullo is the designated untolled alternative for the new Port Mann Bridge, which opens with tolls next month.

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