COLUMN: Time to talk tolls should be now

The best time to apply pressure to any government is just before an election ­– not afterwards, writes columnist Frank Bucholtz

A review of bridge-tolling policy won’t happen until after the spring provincial election.

The decision by Transportation Minister Todd Stone is clearly in the interests of the current BC Liberal government, but it may not be in the interest of bridge users.

The best time to apply pressure to any government is just before an election ­– not afterwards.

Stone said last week that there is no rush to do such a review. The province has decided it is going ahead with the Deas Island bridge which will replace the Massey Tunnel, and it will be tolled.

“If they (the Mayors’ Council) move forward with a tolled bridge to replace the Pattullo, that would leave the Alex Fraser as the only non-tolled option, and that would not be workable for the region,” Stone said. “That being said, we also know the George Massey construction period is going to take another four-and-a-half years. Pattullo, assuming they make a decision on that, would take four or five years. So there’s lots of time to have this discussion broadly across the region.”

The review process has dragged on for far too long already. The province’s decision to have drivers who use the new Port Mann Bridge pay for much of the $3.3 billion cost of the entire Highway 1 improvement project, while allowing drivers who get on the highway in Coquitlam and west to entirely escape paying tolls, set a high mark for inequity.

Other provincial highway projects in the region do not have tolls. The new Pitt River Bridge between Port Coquitlam and Maple Ridge is free. So is the Sea-to-Sky Highway, which had a major rebuild in time for the 2010 Winter Olympics.

Highway 17, the perimeter road between Surrey and Delta’s port, is also a free highway with no tolls.

The effect of placing tolls on the Port Mann and the Golden Ears (a bridge owned by TransLink) has been twofold. It has moved traffic to free bridges, most notably the Pattullo and Alex Fraser, and caused much more congestion than would otherwise be the case.

The second effect has been to hit drivers who use the toll bridges regularly, most notably residents of Surrey, Langley, Maple Ridge and Abbotsford, (and to a lesser degree Mission and Chilliwack) with higher taxes in the form of bridge tolls.

Interestingly enough, most of the ridings in those six communities are held by BC Liberal MLAs. There are currently 17 MLAs representing those communities in the provincial legislature, and two more from Delta, which is already impacted by congestion on the Alex Fraser and will be in exactly the same boat when the new Deas Island bridge opens.

Of those 19 MLAs, only three are New Democrats. One is an independent (Vicki Huntington in Delta South), who is not running again, and the other 15 are BC Liberals.

The BC Liberals badly need to keep a strong majority in this region in order to retain power. Yet they have done very little to show that they understand the concerns of those who pay tolls on a regular basis.

The provincial election is just over two months away. People who are concerned about the unfair tolling policy, and the likelihood that it will continue for another four or five years (if Stone’s words are accurate), need to apply considerable pressure to the candidates in their ridings.

They need to see where the candidates from different parties stand, and they need to let them know this is an election issue.

Frank Bucholtz writes Wednesdays for Peace Arch News.

frank.bucholtz@gmail.com