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When damage from a suspicious fire closed the Pattullo Bridge in January, thousands of frustrated drivers squeezed their cars on to the Port Mann and Alex Fraser bridges, worsening Lower Mainland gridlock.

Even after round-the-clock repair work put the Pattullo Bridge back into service in a week, the traffic jams remained, as did residents' frustrations - daily reminders of one of the most visible issues of the 2009 election campaign.

Tolls, congestion and transit are top-of-mind in Fraser Valley ridings, including newly created Surrey-Fleetwood, where New Democratic MLA Jagrup Brar (elected in Surrey-Panorama Ridge) is facing off against Liberal candidate Jagmohan Singh.

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"Transportation is a huge issue in the Lower Mainland and in Surrey especially," said Mr. Singh, whose website features a photograph of him with Premier Gordon Campbell at February's kickoff of construction of the long-awaited new Port Mann Bridge. "On any given day, even on the weekend, that bridge is overburdened."

Surrey is the fastest-growing community in the province, Mr. Brar said, and the traffic-clogged Port Mann Bridge is only one symptom of its inadequate transportation network.

Although the NDP has taken heat from the Liberals for opposing the new bridge, Mr. Brar said his party backs a new span but questions the Liberals' approach.

"I don't believe they have a sound business plan," Mr. Brar said, adding that many constituents he's spoken to are worried about tolls eating into their budget.

The new Port Mann Bridge is to be financed through electronic tolls of $3 each way for cars. A proposed new Pattullo Bridge is also to be financed by tolls.

That rankles voters who must cross bridges daily to get to work and who note the Sea to Sky Highway was revamped without tolls, Mr. Brar said.

The existing Port Mann span, opened in 1964, has long been a bottleneck. Buses haven't served the route for 20 years because of congestion; rapid bus service is to be provided under the Liberals' plan to replace the bridge.

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That plan has featured some abrupt turns, including the shift from twinning the existing span to building a new, 10-lane crossing and the government's decision to finance the project on its own, rather than build it as a public-private partnership.

There's broad support for replacing the outdated span, and frustrated commuters just want the government to get on with it.

But even as construction moves into full gear, some question whether the $3-billion price tag ($2.5-billion in capital costs, plus operating, maintenance and interest expenses) will provide value for money.

John Buker, a 31-year-old physics student at Simon Fraser University, splits his time between a Vancouver apartment and his parents' home in Chilliwack.

He founded Rail for the Valley in 2007, a group that lobbies for light rail on existing railway tracks.

The new Port Mann Bridge is to be designed to accommodate "potential light rapid transit at a future date."

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Mr. Buker fears that if the new bridge is built without light rail in the beginning, it would never be added in the future.

"People in the valley would love to have this alternative because traffic can be a nightmare," he said.

In early 2008, the Liberals unveiled a $14-billion transit plan that includes spending on four new rapid transit lines, including a six-kilometre extension to the existing SkyTrain service in Surrey.

A light rail system is expected to be evaluated as planning for that extension goes ahead.



MONDAYCrime in Metro Vancouver

YESTERDAY Recession in the Interior


Tonight at 6 p.m. on CTV News: Can big spending on blacktop and transit buy your vote? Stephen Smart finds out if the infrastructure spree is enough to swing some tight ridings to the Liberals.

TOMORROW Native rights on Vancouver Island

Read Globe B.C. and and watch CTV News this week for all five parts of the Battleground B.C. series.

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About the Author
National correspondent

Based in Vancouver, Wendy Stueck has covered technology and business and now reports on British Columbia issues including natural resources, aboriginal issues and urban affairs. More


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