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Alex Fraser Bridge at 25: A divide bridged, a divide created

Lillian and then-premier Bill Vander Zalm say hi to Richmond mayor Gil Blair as they pass by during the opening of the Alex Fraser Bridge 25 years ago. - Mark Patrick photo
Lillian and then-premier Bill Vander Zalm say hi to Richmond mayor Gil Blair as they pass by during the opening of the Alex Fraser Bridge 25 years ago.
— image credit: Mark Patrick photo

Curious crowds fanned across six lanes of new pavement, marvelling at an engineering feat no one in North America would top for two decades.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Alex Fraser Bridge, the longest cable-stayed bridge in the world and the tallest structure in B.C. at time of completion.

It opened with a public walk across the 2,525-metre span. B.C.’s transportation minister and namesake of the bridge, Alex Fraser, arrived in a buggy drawn by Arabian horses, and then-premier Bill Vander Zalm greeted taxpayers who were handed bumper stickers declaring: “Take the Fraser over the Fraser.”

While Expo 86 was radically changing Vancouver, a $58-million suburban bridge—now a quarter-century old—was about to change Richmond.

The bridge was the centre of a massive multi-million dollar provincial project aimed at boosting traffic flow between Richmond, Delta and New Westminster. Besides the massive Fraser River span, the project included 32.5 kilometres of new highways, 16 kilometres of connecting roads and 37 smaller bridges and overpasses.

The East-West Connector—Highway 91—opened a few years after crews put the finishing touches on the Alex Fraser, a bridge built with capacity for six lanes of vehicle traffic or four lanes plus two tracks for light rail transit. Rapid transit never materialized on the bridge, instead SkyTrain’s Expo line was created.

A full-page B.C. government ad in the Sept. 17, 1986 Richmond Review noted the highway improvements and new bridge would “meet the needs of the province well into the 21st century.” Now 11 years into that century the bridge is a logjam each day during peak times.

A highway runs through it

Provincial planners came up with multiple options for the East-West Connector—a highway that would cut through East Richmond and link what is now City Centre with the Alex Fraser Bridge.

One option being pushed was to run it alongside Westminster Highway. Bill Zylmans Jr. remembers his father fighting vociferously against it, believing it would jeopardize their roadside produce stand. One petition later, the government opted for the current route, traversing some property lines but nonetheless cutting through fertile farmland.

When the bridge and connector opened, Zylmans remembers the family wondering if they made a terrible mistake. Motorists flocked to the new highway making traffic so light on Westminster Highway “you could have a tea party on it.”

“It scared the living hell out of us from a business point of view,” he said. “We fought hard to get rid of that road but we destroyed our business by doing it, because there was no traffic.”

But several months later, vehicles and customers started to return.

“It became a country drive. The general public started to appreciate Westminster Highway was kind of a slow moving road, and everything became normal again.”

Today, Westminster Highway is often a congested mess of truck traffic. But relief is in sight for businesses like Zylmans’ W&A Farms. A new Highway 91 interchange at Nelson Road is slated to open in a few months to serve the growing industrial port lands. There’s even talk of bus service in the future.

“This is already five years too late,” said Zylmans. “It’s going to save the agricultural component of East Richmond for a little longer, until somebody really thinks about paving it.”

A growing city

Highway planners could have avoided the truck traffic chaos altogether by heeding the words of Richmond council, said Coun. Harold Steves.

The longtime councillor favoured an East-West Connector route that hugged the edge of the port lands, putting the road on the southern edge of East Richmond’s Agricultural Land Reserve—instead of through its heart.

“They didn’t see how that would be a major industrial area at all,” said Steves. “It would have been one of the best ways to protect East Richmond farmland had the highway gone to the south. That was one of our arguments. You’re dividing up farmland, which is going to put further stresses on it, and we’ve been proven right.”

Steves points to the port’s 2009 purchase of the Gilmore farm, which is outside the port’s traditional area. Port officials have simply called the purchase “strategic.”

Coun. Greg Halsey-Brandt also disagreed with the highway’s routing. He said original plans called for the Alex Fraser Bridge to connect with Burnaby via a new crossing, which would have allowed Richmond to simply expand Westminster Highway instead of getting a freeway.

“Our concern was that it would become a freeway to get in and out of Vancouver, which of course it has, and the other thing is the impact on farmland. It took quite a swath of farmland and chopped up some of the farms,” he said.

The bridge was also criticized for encouraging people to drive and removing them from public transit. But it also brought benefits.

The new road infrastructure served as a catalyst for the port lands, which soon began to offer tax revenue to the city and jobs for residents, said Halsey-Brandt.

“They sat dormant for years and years and years. There was really nothing there except for a few sand piles,” he said.

The Graybar Road area also began to develop, along with the residential neighbourhood of Hamilton, and the bridge boosted options for Richmond motorists. It led to the creation of Alderbridge Way and linked the new Knight Street Bridge with Richmond’s downtown.

Said Halsey-Brandt: “If it hadn’t been for the bridge we wouldn’t have had what we have next to Lansdowne in terms of all those new residential areas.”

Alex Fraser Bridge

•Construction start: March 1984

•Opened Sept. 23, 1986

•Named after the late Alex Fraser, a long serving minister of transportation and highways

•Cost $58 million, excluding approaches and highways

•2,525-metres long with a main span of 465 metres

•Longest cable-stayed bridge in the world in 1986, held the world record in 1991 and the record for the Americas until 2005

•At 154.3 metres high it the tallest structure in B.C. at the time, beating Vancouver’s Harbour Centre’s 148 metres

•192 main cables, with lengths between 49.5 to 237.5 metres

•Part of a multi-million project that included 32.5 km of new highways, 16 km of new roads, 37 small bridges

*Source: Ministry of Transportation

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