Police continue to investigate the cause of a fire that closed Pattullo Bridge, one of the busiest in Metro Vancouver, while transit officials seek ways to ease traffic congestion resulting from the closure.
The bridge connecting New Westminster and Surrey is expected to be closed for at least a month, causing delays for thousands of Metro Vancouver commuters, officials with TransLink, the Greater Vancouver transit authority, said Monday.
The 72-year-old bridge has been closed since early Sunday morning when a fire damaged an 18-metre section of wooden trestles at the south end of the structure.
Surrey RCMP said the fire may have been caused by a campfire flaring up underneath the bridge.
"We've been able to determine there's three, perhaps four homeless people that have been staying down underneath the Pattullo Bridge. It looks as though they had a small fire, almost like a campfire for cooking, keeping warm," Sgt. Roger Morrow told CBC News.
"The difficulty that we're now faced with is we're not, at this point, able to link that fire with the actual structure fire that's caused this closure."
Police are now looking for the homeless people who camped under the bridge, Morrow said.
The damaged section of the bridge will be demolished, and replacement work will begin once a final design is complete and materials become available.
"We are looking at replacement structures that we may be able to bring in quickly and drop into place. We are still maintaining that four-week window," TransLink CEO Tom Prendergast said.
More than 80,000 vehicles use the King George Highway route over the Pattullo Bridge every day to cross the Fraser River. Traffic on other routes over the river was heavily backed up during the Monday morning commute.
Vehicles now have to use the nearby Alex Fraser Bridge, or travel east to the Port Mann Bridge on the Trans-Canada Highway, or take Highway 99 to the George Massey Tunnel, which runs under the Fraser River.
Prendergast said the transit authority is trying to come up with solutions to ease traffic congestion.
Commuters need to be more flexible with their work hours over the four weeks as repairs take place, he said.
"Give some leniency to your employees. Let the employee decide what's best for him or her in terms of them getting in to work," Prendergast said Monday.
"But probably the biggest thing we can do is get people to change their travel to and from work habit in terms of earlier in the morning, later in the morning, earlier in the evening and later in the evening."
Increased demand for bus, SkyTrain
The bridge closure also increased demand for bus and SkyTrain service Monday. TransLink added extra trains and buses for the morning and evening commute and said bicycles would not be allowed on the SkyTrain until further notice.
Several buses were being rerouted because of the closure, including those that normally run to the Scott Road SkyTrain Station, which were being rerouted to the King George Station.
RCMP Cpl. Peter Thiessen said more patrol cars will be out in the coming weeks watching for impatient commuters who might misuse high-occupancy vehicle lanes or do other things to speed up their drive.
TransLink spokesman Ken Hardie said the fire under the bridge flared up again Monday morning.
"It's still burning under there. The only way to get the fire under control is to knock it down, but the whole structure is so badly compromised it's got to come out," Hardie said.
That section of wooden trestles was built in the 1930s to allow engineers to adjust the height of the bridge deck over a section of unstable soil.
The four-lane bridge was completed in 1937 and named after former B.C. premier Duff Pattullo.
New bridge 10 years away
TransLink approved the construction of a new tolled crossing to replace the bridge in July, but Hardie said any plan to replace the entire bridge would take at least 10 years to execute.
"In the case of the Pattullo, there's no pot of money set to build that. If it gets built it's going to be done as a public-private partnership and the bridge will have to be tolled. That's the only way we can afford to do it," said Hardie.
Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts told CBC News it was time for the narrow bridge, which has a reputation for fatal traffic accidents, to be replaced.
"The bridge is old. It's non-functioning," she said. "It's 6½ metres narrower than if it was constructed today. It's got wooden construction on it."
But there is no funding in place to build a replacement, she said.
"We've been calling for that," said Watts "The bottom line is that there is no money. We really need participation from provincial and federal governments to get this issue resolved."