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Bridge fire over Fraser sets stage for weeks of gridlock Add to ...

With a fire still smouldering at the southern base of the Pattullo Bridge yesterday, transportation officials were predicting traffic headaches for Metro Vancouver for weeks to come.

Every alternative route across the Fraser River will be busier because the Pattullo, which normally handles a fifth of all daily traffic across the river, is closed for extensive repairs that are expected to take four to six weeks.

"We really need to ask people not to travel in peak times if they can possibly avoid it," said Ken Hardie, a spokesman for TransLink. "Stay at home in your fuzzy slippers a little longer, or start a little earlier. The more people can shift their schedules, the better off we'll all be."

The bridge is mostly constructed of steel and concrete, but a short section that rests on the soft southern bank of the river is made of wood.

Mr. Hardie was speaking by telephone as he stood at the foot of the bridge yesterday afternoon. He said the timbers were heavily charred and still smoking, making it hard to determine how much structural damage had been caused. "These beams are really, really substantial pieces of wood ... but it is not repairable."

The massive, creosote-soaked timbers, some laid during the original construction in 1937, will have to be demolished and replaced.

The Surrey Fire Department received a call at 2:50 a.m. yesterday from a motorist who reported seeing flames shooting up on either side of the asphalt top. Police evacuated the bridge and it took several hours for firefighters to get the blaze under control.

When structural engineers finally got access the site yesterday afternoon, they concluded that an 18-metre bridge section needs to be replaced.

Many of the 80,000 vehicles normally funnelling across the Fraser between New Westminster and Surrey on the aging four-lane bridge are likely to be adding to the congestion on the Port Mann or Alex Fraser Bridges and through the George Massey Tunnel.

TransLink is also promising to add more capacity to its Surrey SkyTrain routes and extra buses, but Mr. Hardie warned transit passengers should expect delays and crowding on routes crossing the Fraser.

Transportation Minister Kevin Falcon, who represents the riding of Surrey-Cloverdale, said the damage doesn't change the need to replace the bridge entirely, but cautioned that is a process that will take years.

TransLink announced last summer it intends to replace the Pattullo, but there is still a question as to whether it will be funded by tolls.

In the meantime, the Transportation Ministry will assist with reconstruction.

"Look, it's clearly going to put more pressure on the Alex Fraser, the Port Mann, maybe all the way to the Oak Street Bridge," Mr. Falcon said in an interview.

"It's clearly going to have an impact on the balance of infrastructure on the corridor, but we have got a resilient network.

"The world won't come to the end, but it will be more difficult."

Staff-Sergeant Bruce Anderson of the Surrey RCMP said was not yet clear whether the fire was accidental or deliberate.

"We're just sifting through the debris. ... It is termed 'suspicious.' "

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