COLUMN: Equitable toll policy must come to pass

Decision to toll proposed Deas Island bridge another excellent of hypocritical tolling policy, writes Frank Bucholtz.

The provincial government should get its ducks in a row.

That means it needs to have a clear and fair tolling policy in place before opening yet another toll bridge between the South Fraser region and the rest of Metro Vancouver.

Last Wednesday’s announcement that a new 10-lane bridge will replace the Massey Tunnel, and that it will be tolled, is another reminder of how hypocritical and discriminatory the government’s current tolling policy is. Work on the new bridge will begin in 2017, and it is expected to open by 2022.

Currently, there are just two tolled bridges in B.C. One is the new Port Mann Bridge, built and operated by the province through the Transportation Investment Corporation (TReO). The other is the Golden Ears Bridge, built and operated by TransLink. Both link Surrey, Langley, and Delta with those to the north.

It is important to look at tolling in its complete context.

Prior to the opening of the Golden Ears Bridge in 2009, the only toll highway in B.C. since the early 1960s had been the Coquihalla Highway. It was tolled when it opened in 1986, because its construction timetable was advanced to have it ready for Expo 86.

It remained a toll highway for more than 20 years, with then-premier Gordon Campbell arbitrarily and surprisingly announcing at the September 2008 Union of B.C. Municipalities convention that the tolls were ending. A total of $845 million was collected over 22 years – just $3 million short of the construction cost of the highway and the connecting link to the Okanagan.

No one saw it coming, and though many interior politicians had called for the tolls to end, even they were blindsided.

The Golden Ears was planned as a toll bridge because it was the only way TransLink could afford to build it. It replaced the aging and slow ferry system which was completely inadequate for the volumes of traffic travelling between Maple Ridge and Langley. It was a new bridge in a location where there had not been a crossing.

The new Port Mann bridge, on the other hand, replaced one of the most important and congested river crossings in the province. It carries the Trans-Canada Highway, which is partially funded by the federal government. It is tolled to reduce the province’s costs. Yet other new provincial highways and bridges, notably the Pitt River Bridge and the Sea to Sky Highway, are free to use.

The province’s tolling policy since the new Port Mann and freeway improvements were announced by Campbell in 2006 says there has to be a free alternative. Theoretically, that is the Pattullo Bridge, but in fact that aging structure cannot handle any more traffic. The South Fraser Perimeter Road is an option to bypass the Port Mann, but one of the major effects has been to put even more traffic on the Alex Fraser and Massey crossings.

If the new Deas Island crossing is also tolled, the pressure on the Alex Fraser Bridge will be enormous. It is already badly congested virtually every weekday morning and evening. There are long lineups to get onto it, whether off Highway 17, Nordel Way or 72 Avenue on the south, or the East-West Connector and Queensborough Bridge on the north.

Transportation Minister Todd Stone did acknowledge last week that the province expects about 14 per cent of daily commuters could shift from the tunnel to the Alex Fraser. He believes that will be temporary.

The minister also said he is willing to examine the tolling policy and road pricing, if TransLink decides to replace the Pattullo Bridge. A new crossing there would also be a toll structure.

Residents who live south of the Fraser River deserve far more from provincial and regional officials than lukewarm promises. There must be a regional tolling and road-pricing policy in place before the Deas Island bridge opens.

Frank Bucholtz writes Wednesdays for Peace Arch News.

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