The number of drivers who will pay to cross the tolled Golden Ears Bridge continues to fall short of TransLink's initial projections. A $40-million annual subsidy is expected in the next couple of years.

Bridge tolls, gas tax coming up short for TransLink

Transit service stretched further against growing demand, rising population in Metro Vancouver

TransLink will lose more money on its underperforming Golden Ears Bridge and to declining gas taxes, worsening its struggle to finance the current level of transit service in the face of growing demand.

Tolls from motorists who pay to cross the four-year-old bridge connecting Langley and Maple Ridge continue to fall short of the payments TransLink must make.

TransLink officials told Metro Vancouver mayors Thursday the annual subsidy for the $800-million bridge that opened in 2009 is expected to grow from $30 million now to around $40 million in each of the next two years.

It was always expected to be subsidized in the initial years but the red ink is stretching out longer because the use of the bridge – 32,000 vehicles per day – isn’t growing as fast as projected.

The take from the 17-cent-a-litre regional gas tax is also forecast to drop for the first time in 2016, continuing a trend of weakness that has spurred the transportation authority to seek different, more sustainable sources. More fuel efficient cars, drivers refueling outside the region and increased transit use are all factors.

TransLink has sought to contain costs and shuffle bus service to its advantage, but with its overall revenue of $1.44 billion a year not rising as fast as population growth, it’s being stretched thinner over time.

Executive vice-president Bob Paddon said the level of transit service delivered per capita peaked in the region in 2009 and has now declined to 2007 levels.

“On the path we’re on, with no new revenue sources and no ability to expand, we anticipate we’ll be at 2004 levels of service per capita by 2020,” he said.

With more money now going out than comes in TransLink has begun to draw down its accumulated reserve to plug an annual deficit of about $20 million.

It also plan to start liquidating prime real estate – such as its former Oakridge transit centre – to pay for existing transit on the hope new funding sources will be approved in a few years.

Some mayors object to selling an estimated $200 million worth of property to fund operations, instead of earmarking it for future capital projects.

“They’re cannibalizing,” White Rock Mayor Wayne Baldwin said, predicting TransLink will “hit a wall” in the years ahead.

“The crisis is being understated by this strategy,” added Richmond Mayor Malcolm Brodie.

TransLink CEO Ian Jarvis said he doesn’t like it either, but there’s no choice other than immediate deep cuts to service to balance the budget.

That would risk driving transit users off the system who might never return after more money arrives.

Coquitlam Mayor Richard Stewart told Jarvis more service is needed now, particularly in fast-growing suburbs, so they develop based on the use of transit, not cars.

“Where we’re building, as you asked us to, if you don’t supply the transit until six years after the people move in they’ll have two or three cars by then and we’ll never get them back into transit.”

Stewart also asked when TransLink will revise its fare zone system, which arbitrarily charges riders more on short trips that cross a zone boundary.

Paddon said a full fare policy review – which could lead to more equitable distance-based pricing – is expected in 2016 once enough data comes in from the new Compass cards that are rolling out over the next year.

There will be no increase in transit fares next year but TransLink intends to raise them again in 2015.

TransLink still intends to make pay parking universal at the park-and-rides it controls, but Paddon said it’s just taking longer than expected.

Delta Mayor Lois Jackson said the refusal of many drivers to pay a high toll at the Golden Ears and the Port Mann bridges is evidence that it would be better to apply consistent much smaller tolls on all bridges in the region.

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