Traffic over the Port Mann Bridge was up 5 per cent in 2015 and it's up even more this summer with the Pattullo Bridge lane closures in effect.

Traffic over the Port Mann Bridge was up 5 per cent in 2015 and it's up even more this summer with the Pattullo Bridge lane closures in effect.

Toll revenue up but so is debt for Port Mann Bridge

Traffic up five per cent in 2015, and 24.5 per cent last month during Pattullo lane closures

The tolled Port Mann Bridge pulled in more revenue last year as more paying drivers crossed it, but the project debt also continued to rise.

That’s because the higher revenue – $136 million collected in the 2015-16 fiscal year compared to $122 million the previous year – has not yet climbed to the breakeven point against the bridge’s borrowing and other operating costs.

The numbers are contained in the annual report released by the Transportation Investment Corp., the B.C. government Crown corporation that runs the bridge and is charged with repaying its debt.

The net loss was $82 million in 2015-16 – down from the $89 million deficit in 2014 – and that pushed the accumulated deficit since 2010 to $394 million, while the total project debt rose to $3.579 billion.

TI Corp. officials say the traffic trend is going in the right direction and tolls will cover the full cost of the project over the next three decades.

“Traffic was up five per cent over last year’s numbers,” said spokesman Greg Johnson.

“Major infrastructure projects are long term investments paid back over time. As planned, TI Corp is on track to repay the bridge and highway improvements by 2050.”

The annual deficit was $19 million lower than budgeted because of lower borrowing costs.

The $218 million in total annual operating expenses consisted mainly of $132 million in borrowing costs, $50 million marked as depreciation, $19 million in toll operations and other customer-related expenses and $11 million for highways operation and maintenance.

According to the report, 84 per cent of bridge users are regular users with registered accounts, meaning they pay the base toll only and are not charged extra amounts

About 100,000 to 115,000 drivers typically use the bridge daily.

But traffic over the Port Mann has been up sharply since work began this spring on the Pattullo Bridge, resulting in lane closures and increased congestion on the free alternative route.

There were 139,200 average weekday crossings of the bridge in July – up 24.5 per cent from 111,800 in July of 2015 – meaning the toll revenues for 2016 are likely to be markedly higher again thanks to the Pattullo remediation.

Year-to-date crossings are up 14.5 per cent for 2016 so far over January to July of 2015.

Critics have questioned whether the Port Mann/Highway 1 project can in fact be paid off in time without raising tolls faster than inflation, and point to the similar struggle of TransLink’s tolled Golden Ears Bridge to attract as many drivers as originally predicted.

That’s also been fodder for opponents of the B.C. government’s $3.5-billion plan to replace the George Massey Tunnel with a new 10-lane toll bridge.

The Metro Vancouver regional district issued a critical report of the bridge plan in June, while the province insists it is necessary because of the tunnel’s vulnerability in an earthquake.

The Massey bridge has now entered the province’s environmental assessment process.

B.C.’s Auditor General is also conducting an audit of the Massey project to evaluate the government’s justification for replacing the tunnel with the new bridge.

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