COLUMN: Pre-election posturing

Tolls, bridge crowding and time spent commuting are major issues going into the spring provincial election.

The province’s plan to add a seventh lane to the Alex Fraser Bridge is a good one. However, it comes quite late in the life cycle of this particular government and has to be seen as a pre-election decision.

No matter. It’s good news there will be some relief for commuters who use that bridge, which has become noticeably more congested in recent years – due primarily to continued growth south of the Fraser and the placing of tolls on the Port Mann Bridge.

A seventh lane will be added to the bridge and by use of a movable barrier, there will be four lanes northbound in the morning, and four lanes southbound in the evening. This is similar to the lane addition made to the old Port Mann Bridge in the 1990s, but the movable barrier makes the additional lane much more useful.

However, the most important question was not answered by this announcement. When will there be a sensible tolling policy put in place, so that drivers head for the nearest bridge with the lightest traffic load, rather than the one that has no tolls?

Transportation Minister Todd Stone at least acknowledged the unfair tolling issue at last week’s announcement by stating that the province will likely take another look at its tolling policy, once TransLink make a commitment to go ahead and replace the Pattullo Bridge.

Given that TransLink has made the bridge replacement one of its top priorities (while also remembering that TransLink is perpetually short of cash for capital projects), such a delay in reviewing the policy seems needless. Why not take a look at it now, and make an announcement on a rational tolling policy before the May 9 election? Voters aren’t holding their breath waiting for that.

The province is going ahead with replacement of the Massey Tunnel. The new bridge that replaces it will be a toll bridge. When the new Pattullo Bridge opens, it will be a toll bridge. The Port Mann and Golden Ears bridges are already toll bridges. That will leave the Alex Fraser as the only free crossing of the main Fraser River channel between Richmond and Mission.

This is a significant financial burden, and also a time-waster, for drivers who live south of the Fraser River from Langley to Delta. It is also a significant financial burden to businesses that do business both north and south of the Fraser.

Interestingly enough, the current B.C. Liberal government is heavily dependent on winning seats in this area. If the B.C. Liberals’ fiddling on the toll policy actually caused enough voter disruption to cause the party to lose most of its seats here, the B.C. Liberals would likely lose the election.

In the May election, there are nine seats in Surrey (one is shared with White Rock) up for grabs, two more in Delta and two more in Langley. There are also three Abbotsford seats, and many Abbotsford residents are also dependent on bridges.

The current representation in this region from Delta to Abbotsford is 11 Liberal MLAs, three NDP MLAs and one independent, Vicki Huntington of Delta-South, who is not seeking re-election.

If voters south of the Fraser demanded action on a tolling policy that would be fair to drivers throughout the Lower Mainland, the B.C. Liberals would have no choice but to respond. The party is counting on this not being a significant enough issue to change votes.

If it really took the legitimate concerns about tolls, bridge crowding and time spent commuting seriously, there would be a new tolling policy in place before the election.

Frank Bucholtz writes weekly for The Leader.


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