Knocking down the Lions Gate Bridge

The bridge from the north shore of the Burrard InletBy the mid-1990s, the Lions Gate Bridge was rusting badly. Just three lanes wide, one  of only two routes into the City of Vancouver from the north, it was often congested.  British Columbia’s Premier of the day, Glen Clark, looked at the options and approved the destruction of the 1930s-era iron bridge and its replacement with a new, bigger  crossing.

Lions Gate Bridge detail, seen from the east side of the deckI’ve worked on road and bridge projects that turned out well, but this was not one of them.  We had done an opinion survey, and as I remember the results were quite cheerful. Three quarters of respondents across Metro Vancouver were prepared to support a four-lane bridge with tolls, including half the respondents in the City.  However, as soon as the project team was settled into offices on West Georgia Street, that support melted away.

The construction of an expanded bridge would force the widening  of the Stanley Park causeway — not much, but enough to take out three dozen trees. This was unpopular with the Parks Board. We held a public forum in downtown Vancouver, and the government MLA for area, Tim Stevenson, sat silent while members of the public dumped on the four-laning concept. I went with a senior team member to present to Vancouver City Council in an open session. The Council was opposed to bringing more vehicle traffic into the West End.  Councillors Jennifer Clarke and Gordon Price, in particular, made their views very clear. If we’d been missionaries in an old cartoon, they would have cooked us in a pot. At a business forum soon after this, the senior mayor on the North Shore spoke out: Jack Loucks of the District of North Vancouver said it was unfair to ask his voters to pay tolls.

Among the critics of the Lions Gate Bridge expansion project were a few people who wanted a traffic tunnel under the Burrard Inlet. This idea had a long history; a Burrard Inlet Tunnel and Bridge Company had been incorporated in 1892 to tunnel at the Lions Gate. A Danish company called Christiani and Nielsen was still pushing the idea in the 1960s, and a Danish architect named Hans Bentzen attended our forums in the 1990s.  Bentzen wanted to create an island in the Inlet, at the mid-point along the tunnel, and build residential towers. Sales from this development would pay the cost of drilling the tunnel. The scheme seemed messy to me, and a likely hazard to navigation, although the eminent architect Arthur Erickson scolded our team for lacking vision.

With no real supporters in sight, the provincial government walked away from the idea of replacing the Lions Gate Bridge. In 1999, Donald Luxton and Lilia D’Acres published a book about the bridge’s history and character, and it was well received. Between 2000 and 2002 the government paid for the replacement of the bridge deck piece by piece, Lego-style, betwen midnight and six a.m. Each driving lane was widened by half  a smidgen, but there are still only three; two running into the City in the morning, and two running out from the City in the afternoon. The shared pedestrian/cycling pathways were also improved somewhat, although pedestrians are advised to walk in single file to avoid getting run down. To finish, the highways ministry painted the bridge and improved the cycling connections at each end.

In 2002, the Vancouver Sun’s Jeff Lee published a brief survey of the various Burrard Inlet tunnel proposals; that is the last time I saw or heard any mention of the tunnel concept.

One response

  1. I think the real killer of the wider bridge was Gordon Price’s questions about where the increased traffic was expected to go. No doubt he was most concerned about his West End neighbourhood, but the question had resonance for the North Shore residents too. There is still a queue on which ever side of the bridge has only one lane now – but all a four lane bridge would have done is shift where the queueing takes place.

    It really is quite extraordinary that the professionals who work on these projects – the replacement of the Patullo being the best current example – fail to understand the network effects of these piecemeal “improvements”. There is also a lack of acceptance of the truism that traffic expands to fill the space available – and its converse. The only way to reduce traffic is to reduce the space devoted to (mostly single occupant) motor vehicles.

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