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Tolls failed to pay for Pattullo Bridge – Removal sparked spontaneous celebration

August 28, 2015

Pattullo Bridge tolls, imposed in 1937 when the bridge opened,  failed to meet expenses for the first decade. A morning announcement of their removal in 1952 sparked a celebration and parade the same day, an indication of the effectiveness of communication in pre social-media times.

Unpopular tolls insufficient to finance debt

In 1944 BC Minister of Public Works Herbert Anscomb stated that “Contrary to popular impression, the bridge is on the red.”

The Vancouver Sun further reported:

“At no time since the Pattullo bridge was opened in November, 1937, have tolls collected been sufficient to cover interest and sinking fund.”

The Pattullo Bridge, spanning the Fraser River, was part of the two major highways: the Trans-Provincial (Fraser Highway) and the Peace Arch Highway (King George Blvd).  The toll-free Fraser River railway bridge was no longer an option for motorists, as its upper road deck was removed when the Pattullo opened.

Even with this exclusive franchise, revenue from tolls consistently fell short of target. Opposition to forking out money to cross over the river was immense—an increase would have fuelled a revolution—and there was constant lobbying against the crossing fees.

Various organizations and jurisdictions, including the Municipality of Surrey, tried in vain to win an exemption for their members. Individuals found the only way to beat the toll was to park on one side and walk to the other.

“For whom the Pattullo Bridge tolls no more”

Then, suddenly, on February 12, 1952, the toll was lifted. Premier Byron Johnson announced that the tolls would come off immediately, same-day at 6 p.m. The news generated intense excitement.

“Officials, residents, workers and commercial firms throughout the city and Lower Fraser Valley district were jubilant today in the news of removal of tolls from the Pattullo Bridge.”

About 2,000 residents from the south side of the Fraser River staged a “spontaneous celebration” and parade across the toll-free bridge to the city.

The parade was assembled in a matter of hours, on a Tuesday. Radio was the prime source of breaking news, however newspaper coverage was timely and comprehensive. News of the Premier’s announcement in the morning was being hawked on the streets before noon and was landing on most doorsteps before dinner.

In this era, a staggering 79 percent of households in New Westminster subscribed to the Vancouver Sun. The city’s own Columbian newspaper, which had campaigned mightily for the removal of the tolls, rushed out a special edition the same day.

Twitter, texting, and other social media may be faster, but at the end of the day are less comprehensive than the press and word-of-mouth.  People can go about their day blithely unaware of social media, but it was impossible to walk down the street without hearing or seeing the news in the old days.

The following excerpt from a report by Jim Kearny of the Sun captures the spirit of the moment and shows why that reporter was soon to be drafted into the elite section for writers.

“The south bank of the river, envisaging real estate booms, industrial expansion and even a whole new city on that side of the Fraser, hailed 6 p.m., February 12, 1952, as their hour of deliverance. A caravan of more than 100 be-ribboned cars and trucks began lining up south of the toll-booths at 5 p.m. An hour later the blare of auto horns and martial music from a sound truck fused in a weird cacophony and the toll-free parade was headed north over the bridge. Tariff free relations with New Westminster had been established.”

Local politicians, eager to bask in the glory and share credit, contributed speeches. One of the organizers was Len Shepherd of South Westminster.

The way forward was paved by a cost-sharing deal with the Federal government, which would include the bridge as part of the chosen route of the Trans-Canada Highway. Ottawa agreed to pay half of the remaining balance, which was about one quarter of the original cost of the bridge.

Former Premier Duff Pattullo, whose government constructed the bridge in the 1930’s against tough opposition, and who imposed the tolls as the only practical way to finance the project, was reported to be just as pleased as anyone that the tolls were coming off.

With the way now free from the encumbrance of an admission fee, the community just over the bridge on the south side was expected to experience rapid growth.

“Removal of the toll is likely to bring a new suburb to the city of New Westminster at South Westminster.”   . . .   “Mayor Fred Jackson of New Westminster said his city ‘would consider’ taking over parts of Surrey on the river front ‘if Surrey were willing.'”   . . .   “Real estate values are expected to jump higher than ever before.”   . . .    “Civic and business leaders hailed the news of the toll removal as ‘ wonderful.'”

Residents of  Vancouver, who believed their city cut off like an island to which you had to pay admission, could only look on with envy. Tolls on its two North Shore bridges would remain.  The money collected from toll booths on the Lions Gate Bridge, opened in 1938,  had also failed to meet expenses until the end of the Second Word War.

South End of the Bridge Views

As shown in the photo below, from the New Westminster Archives, there were four toll booths at the south end of the Pattullo Bridge when it was built.  The approach to the new bridge is not yet paved. A couple of cars are seen, far left, exiting on the old Pacific Highway route to the Fraser River Bridge.

Pattullo Bridge toll booths - South Westminster - IHP4560-01

In the background of the center lane, is the new alignment of Scott Road to the Liverpool Road intersection with the highway. The route created a new level crossing on the BC Electric Railway tracks, a disadvantage compared with the old route via the Bridge Road railway underpass to the Fraser River Bridge.

The Scott Road intersection was a source of many accidents after the toll booths were removed as cars on the highway sped toward the bridge. A full traffic light had to be installed.

Below,  a pick-up truck waits on Scott Road at the intersection with the Trans-Canada Highway, in 1953, a year after the toll booths were removed. Turf Hotel across the way.

Scott Road at King George Blvd - 1953 (NWA IHP9266-0597)

Below, the same scene in 2015. The toll booths were formerly beneath where the overhead signage is now.

Scott Rd at King George old intersection

Link to Google Street View King George Highway at south end of Pattullo Bridge & 124 St

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