Regional politicians are urging the province to retain the old Port Mann Bridge as a pedestrian and bike route instead of tearing it down after the new 10-lane toll bridge opens.
The concept of keeping the bridge as an elevated park over the Fraser River was raised last fall by a Metro Vancouver manager.
On Wednesday (Feb. 8), the Metro environment and parks committee voted to call on the province to pursue retaining it as a greenway.
"I think it's a fantastic idea," said Langley City Coun. Gayle Martin, the committee's vice-chair. "Think of the cost of having that bridge dismantled."
If the full Metro board endorses the resolution at the end of the month it will add its voice to the Fraser Valley Regional District, which already voted last month to support keeping the bridge for public use.
The two regional districts and the province are partners in the Experience The Fraser project that aims to connect riverside parks and trails into a walking and cycling network that extends along the Fraser River from Richmond to Hope.
Martin said a two-kilometre multi-use linear park over the old Port Mann would form a natural link for Experience The Fraser that would connect Metro's nearby Colony Farm Regional Park on the north side of the river with a planned new park on the Surrey side.
But the province's transportation ministry says the idea is a non-starter.
Project spokesman Max Logan said retaining the old bridge is unworkable because its approaches must be dismantled to connect the new span to Highway 1.
Metro politicians argued that simpler walkways might still be built connecting the old bridge to either the new one or to the shore.
But Logan said that would be dangerous.
"It wouldn't be safe or structurally sound to retain any remaining portion for alternate uses like a linear park or a pedestrian crossing," Logan said.
In an earthquake, he said, there would be "significant risk" the old bridge would fall if its approaches were gone, adding that could in turn threaten the new bridge immediately downstream.
"Even if you could leave a small portion of the approaches to access the main span, the structural integrity and the concerns around the potential for collapse are the key reasons why we intend to remove the existing bridge."
Logan also noted the business case for the new bridge depends on eliminating the annual costs to maintain the old one.
Switching to a single 10-lane bridge rather than two twins saved more than $200 million in long-term maintenance, rehabilitation and seismic upgrade costs related to keeping the old one, he said, offsetting the additional $180 million to build a bigger bridge.
Ending up with a single bridge also means fewer piers in the water, he said, which was deemed better for the aquatic environment and river navigation.
"It may not be possible," conceded Vancouver Coun. Heather Deal, who chairs the Metro environment committee. "But if you don't ask, you don't get. At the very least, we want to explore the issue as far as we can."
Richmond Coun. Harold Steves also spoke in favour of preserving the old structure.
"I helped build the darn bridge," Steves said, adding he mixed concrete for it in his youth. "I find it surprising a bridge that seemed so substantial is considered obsolete in my lifetime."
The old bridge was built with an original life span of 50 years, but got some structural upgrades in 2000-2001 when a fifth lane was added. Its replacement is expected to last at least 75 years and will include a 3.5-metre-wide multi-use path.
Now a veteran advocate for agriculture, Steves sees the old span as a potential place to grow food.
"You could put small conventional greenhouses on it as well as a farmer's market," he suggested. "There's no reason a half acre of that bridge couldn't be an incubator farm."
Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts said if the old bridge does come down its deck should at least be recycled for use in the planned replacement of the Pattullo Bridge.
The $3.3-billion Port Mann/Highway 1 project is to be funded by tolls of at least $3 that start once the new bridge opens in December.
The province has not disclosed the cost of demolishing the old bridge, saying that is built into the overall project price.
Demolition of the old bridge is slated for 2014 and a detailed deconstruction plan is being prepared.
Logan said there's not much potential to reuse the bridge's components, but the steel will be recycled.
Fans of an aerial park on the bridge are inspired by other elevated walkways around the world, such as the Walkway Over the Hudson in New York State, the High Line Park in New York City and the Promenade Planteé in Paris.
City of Vancouver has also embarked on a process of revisioning what could be done with the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts, with park uses among the options under consideration.