COLUMN: Toll reduction a unique idea

TransLink is taking an innovative approach to tolls on the Golden Ears Bridge, and there will be some lessons in what it discovers as its reduces tolls for a six-week period on weekends and evenings.

Tolls are a big issue for Surrey residents, with the looming prospect of paying a toll for every trip over the Port Mann Bridge on many people’s minds. While the exact toll structure hasn’t been set, the province said in 2009 that tolls would likely average about $3 each way for cars. For a Surrey driver commuting to Coquitlam to work, for example, that would add $120 per month to commuting costs.

Those tolls will start to be collected in 2012, when the first eight lanes of the new bridge are opened. That is little more than a year away.

The present tolls on the Golden Ears Bridge are $2.80 for vehicles with a transponder and $3.35 for vehicles that are registered, but do not have transponders.

They will drop to $1.95 for vehicles with transponders and $2.35 for registered vehicles without transponders, on weekends and after 7 p.m. The reduced tolls go into effect on April 15.

In the case of TransLink, it is trying to build demand for the Golden Ears Bridge. Bridge traffic of about 25,000 vehicles per day is lower than projected, and this is partly due to less than robust economic times. The bridge was conceived and built when the economy was booming, but by the time it opened in June, 2009, the economy had contracted. It has yet to come anywhere close to the booming times of five or six years ago.

TransLink figures that, if people give the bridge a try, they may find it represents a shorter trip time. If so, they will likely continue to use it.

This six-week toll reduction represents an opportunity for Surrey businesses, particularly those in the Port Kells, Fleetwood and Guildford areas. They have a unique chance to market themselves to people in Pitt Meadows and Maple Ridge, and might even offer to pay the tolls for first-time customers. Marketing themselves to people from those communities could bring in some significant new business.

So much of what will happen on the Golden Ears Bridge is connected to what happens on the Port Mann. At present, there is added congestion on the freeway because of construction all along Highway 1 from Langley to Vancouver. However, the trip across the river is still free.

Many people are finding their household budgets are stretched, due to rapidly-increasing costs (such as gasoline), and will avoid paying a charge if there is an alternative. This is one reason why so many are upset about the prospect of tolls on the Port Mann Bridge.

TransLink’s bridge isn’t caught up in politics, but the Port Mann Bridge most certainly is. New Premier Christy Clark is said to be itching to go to the polls some time this year, or early next year  at the latest. The toll issue could be the difference between government and opposition for the BC Liberals, as the winners in Surrey’s eight seats (and perhaps a few others) could be decided on such an issue, which affects so many people.

The issue is particularly powerful because the only toll bridges in the Lower Mainland will be the Port Mann and Golden Ears. No other bridges are tolled and there is no plan in place to add tolls to any other crossings. Suggestions that the Pattullo and Alex Fraser Bridges remain as “free” alternatives are spurious. Those bridges are filled to capacity during every rush hour.

If nothing changes, the issue of Port Mann tolls will be a major election issue. If either the BC Liberals or NDP make cancelling the tolls part of their platform, it could mean enough seats for a good shot at government.

If for some political reason, the Port Mann tolls are reduced or eliminated, it will have a long-term effect of the Golden Ears Bridge. It will likely keep traffic levels down for a longer period that would otherwise be the case.

It’s important for all of us to watch this Golden Ears experiment with great interest.

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