COLUMN: Taking toll on patience

Financial demand of new Port Mann Bridge unfair to its users

In what can only be considered curious timing, Premier Christy Clark toured the new Port Mann Bridge work site Saturday – one day after the defeat of the HST was confirmed.

The tour was to mark the halfway point in completion of the bridge. It was an occasion for the provincial government to unwittingly remind regular bridge users of a new tax they will start paying sometime next year, when the first eight lanes of the bridge open. That tax, of course, is the toll to use the bridge.

The toll will be as low as $3 per trip for those with transponders. But for regular commuters, that is $6 per day, which is another $120 per month, if they work 20 days each month.

When former premier Gordon Campbell announced plans to build a new Port Mann Bridge in January 2006, the announcement was received with enthusiasm throughout Surrey and the Fraser Valley. At last, someone was recognizing the worsening congestion on the bridge, which is far more than a commuter route.

It is part of the Trans-Canada Highway. It is the main route between the City of Vancouver and its surrounding suburbs, and Surrey and the Fraser Valley. It is also the major access point from the U.S. border to Vancouver and Whistler;  to ferries from Horseshoe Bay; and between Vancouver and the Interior.

His announcement came at a time when the B.C. economy was booming. Most people who wanted to were working, and the idea of a toll bridge didn’t sound so bad. The pent-up demand for a new bridge, one which would include transit lanes and space for cycling, more than made up for any concern about tolls.

That was then, this is now.

The economy is far different. While B.C. is holding its own, as compared to the U.S., many people are very concerned about their finances. That’s one reason the HST went over like a lead balloon – people saw it as yet another additional tax. The same holds true of TransLink’s plans to boost gas taxes and look at a car tax.

A toll on the Port Mann, where there are few “free” alternatives available, is a specific tax to pay for the $3.3 billion cost of the bridge and improvements to Highway 1. It and the Golden Ears Bridge (one of the alternatives) will be the only two tolled bridges in the province.

This means Surrey residents in particular will have few alternatives to crossing the river without paying a toll. One alternative will be to use transit – but the transit service that is scheduled to use the bridge is unfunded, for the present.

Another alternative is the Pattullo Bridge, which is old, narrow and dangerous, and can’t take a great deal of additional traffic. The Alex Fraser Bridge and Massey tunnel are other alternatives, and they will likely become much busier the day the tolls kick in on the Port Mann.

Suggestions from some local politicians about more universal tolling of bridges in the Lower Mainland, to help pay for transit and road improvements, have thus far fallen on deaf ears. It appears Surrey, Langley, Abbotsford and Coquitlam residents will pay for the bulk of the bridge costs.

The Golden Ears Bridge was a completely new service. There hadn’t been a bridge between Langley and Maple Ridge – just a ferry service that was hopelessly outdated.

The new Port Mann Bridge is replacing an existing bridge which has been in operation since 1964 and was never a toll bridge. It has served the area well, but it has been jammed with traffic at busy times (which are far more than mornings and evenings on work days) for years.

The new wider bridge is badly needed, but the additional financial demand it will place on bridge users is patently unfair. The province needs to rethink not only how the bridge is financed, but how a broader, lower cost per trip, tolling program could help pay for the new bridge and ease TransLink’s financial woes.

Surrey residents should not be paying an unfair share of the overall tax burden for transportation.

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

 

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