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‘Influential persons’ – How New Westminster got its wish for more automobile traffic

August 24, 2015

When the Pattullo Bridge was under construction, the City of New Westminster lobbied strenuously for measures to funnel bridge traffic through its business district and for the removal of streetcar lines in favor of buses. The Mayor convinced the British Columbia Electric Railway to buy into his scheme, but the company wanted some cash inducement to make the change. The city knew where to go for the money.

Columbia Street - street car tracks and poles - New Westminster Archives photoIn June 1936, the Minister of Public Works and his engineering staff met with civic officials at a special meeting of council to hear the city’s proposal to eliminate the streetcar lines on Columbia Street.

The City’s selling points to get the Province to fund the conversion were, first, that elimination of the necessity to accommodate the streetcar tracks and overhead wires would “effect a saving in the cost of the north end approach to the new Fraser River bridge.”

Mayor FJ Hume also argued that: “Elsewhere also in the city the removal of streetcar tracks would improve highway traffic.”

In addition: “It would remove the danger spot on Columbia street at the BC Penitentiary, also remove centre trolley poles on Columbia street in the business section, and improve traffic conditions on Kingsway between Edmonds and the city.”

Minister FM MacPherson pointed out that these side benefits to the city were outside his purview and could not influence his spending. However, the savings at the bridge approach warranted serious consideration.

“He was willing to give what assistance he could to the city’s scheme.”

An alderman suggested the Province should fund the plan because changes to the north end approach would improve traffic safety. The Mayor even suggested that the Province owed the city this money in compensation for loss of tax revenue on the land expropriated for bridge approaches.

The Minister appeared to be somewhat browbeaten by city lobbyists.

“During the discussion on the bridge approach the minister of public works said that if he had had his way the approach to the new bridge would have been from Royal Avenue and not Columbia street. Influential persons in this city had insisted on the bridge connecting with Columbia Street, he said.”

Negotiations continued between the City, the Province and the BC Electric Railway, with the City ultimately getting its way.

The prize for the City, of course, was the attraction of more automobile traffic to the Columbia Street commercial strip, bringing more customers into shops.

The wealth of the city had always come from upriver and settlers of the Fraser Valley. Trade which in former times arrived by river steamer, horse and wagon, now came by automobile.

The day after the last streetcar ran along Columbia street to Sapperton, the tracks were paved over. When the city insisted on paving over even a short remaining section between Begbie Street and Eighth, the streetcar system was disrupted to breaking point and effectively run out of the city.Streetcar Free - Columbia Street for Autos - New Westminster Archives Photo

New Westminster’s strategy can be said to have worked. In following years, and especially post-war, affluent Columbia Street was known as the Golden Mile.

In the 70’s business fell into decline as suburban shopping centers proved more attractive to shoppers. Formerly supported by a large hinterland, Columbia Street was forced to depend on local customers. Policy changes have followed.

The desire for more car traffic was by no means unique to New Westminster. When the province proposed a new highway from the US border, an alternate to the Pacific Highway, business interests in White Rock lobbied hard to have it routed westward via Marine Drive, into the business center. The province adopted a shorter route along the present King George Blvd.

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