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Vehicles pass underneath the Georgia Street Viaduct (left) adjacent to the Dunsmuir Street Viaduct(right) in Vancouver, British Columbia, January 08, 2014.Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

City staff will recommend this fall that Vancouver's two viaducts – remnants of a commuter route between the downtown and the east – should be taken down.

So far, the reaction has been more positive than when the idea was first proposed three years ago.

"Engineers have found no new arguments against replacing them," said Councillor Geoff Meggs, a proponent of the idea because it would free up city land under the viaducts to be used for parks and low-cost housing. "A firm decision has to be made, and they will be recommending replacement."

The viaducts, built in the 1960s, are the vestigial parts of a once-grand plan to build a freeway through downtown Vancouver and would need $50-million to $60-million in upgrades to make them earthquake-proof. Removing them would only add a couple of minutes to commute times, according to city staff.

The official report isn't expected at council for a vote until the end of September. But planners and engineers have been visiting interested groups since late June, showing them the information they have gathered about the impact on traffic patterns, the cost of keeping the viaducts and the proposed east-connecting commuter route that would create a new link between Georgia Street and Expo Boulevard.

The first phase of the plan would see the removal of the eastern end of the viaducts, which cross over Main Street and then slope down to Prior Street. The viaducts would then come down at Main, freeing up two city-owned blocks.

Business and neighbourhood groups that had been alarmed

by parts of the plan say they

are hearing more positive

things now.

"Barring any kind of major issues, this has a lot more appeal," said Charles Gauthier, executive director of the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association, which was briefed on the project last week. "It wasn't a showstopper the same way it was three years ago."

City engineers have calculated that travel times would increase by one to three minutes. The viaducts account for just 15 per cent of the commuter traffic to and from the east and carry less than half the number of vehicles they were designed for.

One advantage of the new plan is that Georgia Street, one of the downtown's big processional routes, would run from Stanley Park all the way down to False Creek, instead of veering off onto a viaduct as it does now.

Mr. Gauthier said there are still a lot of details to be worked out. One is how to allow commuters arriving from the east to turn left from Georgia so they can go west and south. Another is whether the city's proposed "bike bridge," meant to help cyclists get up the steep escarpment on the east side of the downtown, is workable. (At the moment, cyclists have a route across one of the viaducts that avoids that climb.)

The Strathcona Residents' Association is cautiously hopeful. The neighbourhood group has supported the removal of the viaducts, said chair Elana Zysblat, because it would allow neighbourhoods such as Strathcona, Chinatown, Crosstown and False Creek to be more connected.

But residents mounted protests two years ago because it appeared that commuter traffic would still be routed along Prior Street, a once-quiet residential street that became a mini-highway when the viaducts were built.

This time, said Ms. Zysblat, they are hearing two different things. One is that engineers have been instructed to look for an alternative route. The second is that St. Paul's Hospital will be moving nearby and it will likely require a better access street than Prior.

"I feel there's something different," Ms. Zyzblat said. "When staff say they have been instructed, I think our protest has been heard."

Mr. Meggs said the important question is whether replacing the viaducts will create a better city. Other issues – the best use for the freed-up city land, whether there should be a bike bridge – can be debated and decided after the essential issue is settled, he said.

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