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British Columbia British Columbia to pay for, build new Pattullo Bridge in Metro Vancouver

Motorists travel over the Pattullo Bridge that connects New Westminster and Surrey, B.C., on Jan. 5, 2018.

DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

The British Columbia government has taken on the construction and cost of replacing a major commuter crossing in Metro Vancouver, freeing $1.37-billion for other transit projects in the area.

Premier John Horgan announced Friday that his government would solely fund a new Pattullo Bridge spanning the Fraser River between Surrey and New Westminster.

The four-lane bridge was at the top of the priority list for Translink's Mayors' Council, which represents all Lower Mainland municipalities issues of transit and transportation.

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The original bridge opened in 1937 and was expected to have a lifespan of 50 years.

Horgan said it is "well past its best-before date."

But the announcement has deeper political implications and signals a better working relationship between the provincial NDP government and the Mayors' Council.

"This is not just a bridge across the river, it's a bridge between governments," Horgan said at a news conference Friday, with the aging bridge in the background. "For too long the provincial government pointed at municipalities and blamed them for a lack of progress."

The Mayors' Council launched a campaign leading up to last May's provincial election, telling voters that the next B.C. government needed to invest more in transportation around Metro Vancouver.

At the time, the federal government and the governing B.C. Liberals had pledged $4.4-billion for transit improvements, but Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson said that wasn't enough to fund the Mayors' Council's 10-year plan.

A 2016 report outlining the condition of the Pattullo Bridge said it must be replaced or closed by 2023.

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The report said the bridge may not be able to withstand an earthquake or even a powerful wind storm.

Construction on the new bridge is expected to start by 2019, with traffic expected to start flowing by 2023.

Transportation Minister Claire Trevena said the new bridge will ensure public safety and make it easier to connect between Surrey and New Westminster.

Andy Yan, director of the City Program at Simon Fraser University, called the bridge a strategic investment on the part of the New Democrat government.

"Understand that with Surrey growing by 800 people per month in the last five years, it's knowing that a pool of voters that are particularly engaged in this piece of infrastructure. It helped shape this funding," he said.

The New Democrats won six of the nine ridings in Surrey in last spring's election, and the party has held the riding on the other side of the bridge in New Westminster for most of the last 50 years.

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Yan said the decision also makes good sense for Metro Vancouver's regionally integrated economy.

"We're not talking about these isolated suburbs anymore," he said. "It's not only just a connection between New Westminster and Surrey."

Richard Walton, vice-chairman of the Mayors' Council, said the group was pleased with the bridge announcement.

"Any time we manage to find a way of upgrading or replacing one of our existing core assets, it's a good day for all of us, and in many ways a symbol for all of the bridges we need to build in order to keep moving forward."

Walton, who is also the mayor of the District of North Vancouver, said he hopes the provincial government and Translink can apply co-ordinated approaches to other infrastructure needs.

Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson said the announcement of the new bridge is good news for commuters, but the lack of federal government support for the project is a telling sign about the current state of affairs between the provincial government and Ottawa.

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"There is no regional or federal buy-in for this bridge and it sets a very expensive precedent for large-scale projects. Paying for an entire bridge without any help looks to us like a distraction tactic to take attention away from the NDP's inept handling of the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion," Wilkinson said in a statement.

Horgan's government said earlier this month that it will look at limiting diluted bitumen shipments until it better understands the environmental implications. The announcement sparked a dispute with the Alberta and federal governments over the future of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.

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