COLUMN: MLAs mum on bridge tolls

Premier Christy Clark has lost thousands of votes south of the Fraser, by stating on Monday that there will be no revisiting of the BC Liberals’ policy on bridge tolling.

She did so during her throne speech on a radio hot-line show, in response to a question from a Surrey resident.

The policy has been that if a bridge is tolled, there will be other free alternatives available to drivers. Of course, this policy actually goes back to the days of Social Credit, when the Coquihalla Highway was tolled, leaving the Fraser Canyon and Hope-Princeton Highways as free alternatives.

Clark was unequivocal that the new Port Mann Bridge will be tolled (at about $3 per trip) when it opens, but there will be no other tolls on any Lower Mainland bridges or tunnels. She is reinforcing the policy, which means that Surrey residents have the only two toll bridges in B.C. as their major options, if travelling north of the Fraser River.

Of course, there are the free options of the 75-year-old Pattullo Bridge, the Alex Fraser Bridge or the Massey Tunnel. Distance suggests that few residents from farther away will use those crossings, although many from North Delta, Newton and South Surrey can use the two newer crossings with ease.

The Pattullo and the congested routes on both sides of the river is a special case. If it is ever replaced, it will likely be a toll bridge that goes up in its place. The Pattullo, in its early days, was a toll bridge and went by the derisive name of Pay-Toll-O.

Many mayors have suggested that a region-wide tolling policy, of perhaps $1 per crossing, could bring in extra revenue for TransLink and bring about fairness for all who use bridges and tunnels. No longer would drivers be punished, based on where they live.

This is a sensible alternative and would still allow the province to recoup the funds it is using in building the new bridge and improving Highway 1 from Langley to Vancouver.

But Clark can’t see that.

Despite the fact that her government has brought in no less than 50 reviews of the Gordon Campbell government’s policies on a wide variety of subjects, she can’t see the wisdom of reversing the Campbell tolling policy. Nor can she understand why South Fraser residents see it as unfair that the new Sea-to-Sky Highway isn’t tolled, but the new Port Mann Bridge will be.

Her South Fraser MLAs – four in Surrey, two in Langley and four more in Abbotsford and Chilliwack – have been silent on this policy as well. This is surprising, as it may be a major factor in their electoral fortunes next year. Regular users of Highway 1 from as far east as Chilliwack will be affected by this inequitable policy, and the results in the pending Chilliwack-Hope byelection may prove to Clark that Fraser Valley voters don’t believe in being treated unfairly.

It is doubly surprising when considering how much political hay the BC Liberals made out of NDP opposition to the Port Mann Bridge project. The NDP was quite rightly pilloried for some of its MLAs, including then-leader Carole James, saying that there was no need for improvements to the highway and the bridge.

Clark was seen as the potential saviour of the sliding BC Liberals when she became party leader last spring, edging out Surrey-Cloverdale MLA Kevin Falcon on the final ballot.

Her reviews of many Campbell policies are designed to show that she wants to do things differently.

Why is she being so stubborn on this policy?

The premier needs to take a page from legendary B.C. premier W.A.C. Bennett and take a “sober second look” at a policy that, as it is written, punishes people based on where they live. She needs to remember that many Surrey residents have no alternative to driving, due to inadequate transit service. They already pay additional gas tax because of that necessity.

Such second looks allowed Bennett to stay in power for 20 years.

Frank Bucholtz writes Thursdays for the Peace Arch News. He is the editor of the Langley Times.


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