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Officials mum on bridge tolling plans

Gateway Program officials say it will be months yet before they reveal exactly how the planned system of tolling will be applied to motorists crossing the Port Mann Bridge after it’s twinned.

It was previously expected that the province would have released its planned tolling fee structure by now.

Gateway executive director Mike Proudfoot said the province has communicated its expectations to three international consortia that are to file bids early next year for the $1.7-billion project to twin the bridge and widen Highway 1.

But he declined to reveal those details.

Among the unknowns are what discounts may be given to high-occupant vehicles, motorists who travel at off-peak times or potentially hybrid-electric vehicles.

It now appears that rather than the province specifying a comprehensive set of rates, it will only set the maximum toll for each vehicle type and limits on how fast it can escalate.

The project bidders are expected to present their own more detailed toll proposals that will lay out the other rates, when they’ll apply and to whom.

Proudfoot said that’s expected to produce a range of options on how to use toll discounts to make the most efficient use of the bridge.

“It’s an opportunity for them to put forward a structure that is very customer-oriented,” he said. “That’s part of the competitive selection process.”

Bidders will likely propose incentives for regular users, he said, as well as an introductory discount period before full toll rates apply.

Overnight discounts for commercial vehicles are another option the province has asked bidders to consider to steer more truck traffic onto the freeway at night, outside peak traffic times.

Initial tolls are to be set at about $3 for cars – more for large trucks and less for motorcycles – when the bridge opens in 2013.

One of the conditions is that the electronic tolling system be interoperable with TransLink’s new Golden Ears Bridge, so a single in-vehicle transponder would work on both spans.

Motorists who don’t get a transponder to pay the tolls would have their licence plate read by cameras and be billed later – at a higher rate.

The winning bidder will finance, design, build and maintain the 37-kilometer corridor upgrade, recouping their investment through tolls over the next 35 years.

It’s unfortunate toll revenue won’t go directly to providing an improved transit alternative for motorists, SFU City Program director Gordon Price said.

He said the toll levels are important, because they will only succeed in preventing the bridge from quickly recongesting if they pose a significant penalty to driving.

“If the toll is not high enough, the real cost will be paid by the people who will be back in the lineups,” he said.

Provincial officials say it will be in the interests of the bridge operator to avoid gridlock and ensure a steady flow of traffic.

jnagel@surreyleader.com

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