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Half-price Port Mann Bridge tolls unveiled

The new Port Mann Bridge (right) opens in December with eight of 10 lanes operational. The final two lanes can
The new Port Mann Bridge (right) opens in December with eight of 10 lanes operational. The final two lanes can't be used until the old bridge is dismantled.
— image credit: File

Drivers crossing the new Port Mann Bridge will pay $1.50 a trip – half the price previously announced – as an introductory toll, and the provincial government is dangling more incentives to encourage users to sign up early.

The cut rate applies for the first three months – until the end of February – but those who register for a tolling account by then will be guaranteed the half-price toll for the first year, Transportation Minister Mary Polak announced Wednesday.

And those who sign up by Nov. 30 also get a $30 credit, equivalent to 20 free crossings.

A further 25-per-cent discount previously promised for registered HOV lane users during peak hours will apply on top of the introductory rate, meaning commuters who car pool will pay $1.13 per crossing for the first year.

Frequent bridge users can also opt for an unlimited pass – $75 per month for standard vehicles that register early.

The introductory discount is being justified on the basis that only eight of 10 lanes of the new bridge will be operational when it opens in December, as the final two can't be used through 2013 while the old bridge is being dismantled.

"We concluded we could and should sharpen our pencils on the initial toll rate," Polak said. "Drivers shouldn't have to pay the full toll until they get the full time savings."

Drivers who register get a free windshield decal that acts as a transponder that's detected by the electronic tolling system.

Provincial officials say registered accounts set up for automatic monthly payment mean less money will be spent mailing out invoices to non-registered users who are detected by licence plate cameras. The cameras aren't completely accurate either, so some revenue is lost that way.

Transportation Investment Corp. CEO Mike Proudfoot said the aim is get 80 per cent of bridge users registered, instead of the industry standard of about 60 per cent, and the extra efficiency would cover the cost of the reduced first-year rates.

Another reason for the break is construction on parts of the Highway 1 corridor will also continue next year, as will work on the South Fraser Perimeter Road (SFPR).

The northeast section of the SFPR in Surrey will open by December, carrying motorists who don't want to pay tolls on the Port Mann Bridge to the free Pattullo Bridge. Construction on the rest of the perimeter road will continue until late 2013, when it will also open up a free alternate route to the Alex Fraser Bridge and Massey Tunnel.

Heavy trucks won't get any introductory break on the previously announced $9 tolls for the Port Mann, but they will pay half price if they cross at night between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m.

Lighter trucks or cars pulling trailers will pay $4.50 in the introductory period, instead of $6, and they'll be offered a $225 unlimited monthly pass.

Motorcyclists will pay $1 at first instead of $1.50 and have the option of a $50 monthly pass.

Drivers who don't register before March will pay the full tolls ($3 for standard vehicles), which are set to kick in for all users in December of 2013.

Unregistered drivers who don't pre-pay or pay within seven days of crossing will be invoiced and charged a $2.30 processing fee, which will be waived for the first three months.

The electronic tolling system is to operate seamlessly with the one on TransLink's Golden Ears Bridge, and the two bridges will move to a common payment system early next year.

The province says the new bridge will chop commute times in half and save commuters up to an hour a day.

The $3.3-billion infrastructure project is the largest in B.C. history.

NDP transportation critic Harry Bains, who favoured lowering or eliminating the tolls in the first year since motorists wouldn't yet have access to the whole bridge, nevertheless called it a "desperate attempt" by the government to shore up votes ahead of the provincial election.

Tolls are required by law to cover the entire $3.3-billion cost of the Port Mann/Highway 1 Improvement project over its 40-year contract – including construction, operation and maintenance by the private partners and the financing costs of the provincial government.

The bridge is expected to take in $100 million in tolls in its first year – even with the discounts.

Public unrest about Port Mann tolls have led some drivers to vow to boycott the new span.

"You're just going to move a bottleneck from one area to another," Bains said, referring to concern drivers who refuse to pay will clog other roads in Surrey, Delta, New Westminster and Burnaby.

"We believe there's sufficient capacity to handle the people who might go elsewhere,"

Polak responded, predicting once drivers try the bridge it will "change quite a few minds."

Polak said she's "absolutely confident" a new Port Mann rapid bus running from Langley to Burnaby will be operating despite TransLink's lack of funding for it.

Ministry officials said there are no plans to charge to park at the new Langley park-and-ride, but the province will turn it over to TransLink, which would decide if fees were to be charged.

Mayors vow to press for road pricing reforms

A one-year break on tolls for the new Port Mann Bridge hasn't stopped calls for a reformed system of tolls in Metro Vancouver that would also refinance TransLink.

Most drivers are expected to take advantage of lower $1.50 tolls initially, but they'll be paying $3 before the end of 2013 and politicians say that means the issue of equity in the region can't be ignored.

"Let's look at what's fair and equitable and shares the load in the region," Langley City Mayor Peter Fassbender.

"We have to look at road pricing," he said, referring to an idea pushed by multiple mayors to charge small amounts not just at all crossings, but for any significant trip on Metro's roads, such as from Coquitlam to UBC or Fort Langley to Tsawwassen.

He said the province's offer of a monthly unlimited pass for the Port Mann Bridge could be extended region-wide so that no motorist pays more than a certain maximum amount under a road pricing scheme.

"You have to be putting some fairness and equity right across the region," Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts said, repeating her call for a "fair tolling" system and added the discounts give a "window of opportunity" to have that debate.

Watts noted the Pattullo Bridge and Massey Tunnel need to be replaced and TransLink needs to expand rapid transit in the region.

She called it a "lost opportunity" that the province failed to toll the Sea to Sky Highway and took tolls off the Coquihalla Highway, adding they could have helped fund infrastructure.

Transportation Minister Mary Polak said she's willing to listen to the mayors but said they need to consult with their communities to see if there's public support for road pricing.

"We have to have that conversation," Polak said, citing the rising transportation and transit needs throughout the Lower Mainland.

NDP transportation critic Harry Bains said his party has no policy yet that would allow road pricing and said he is cautious on the idea.

"You'd better have a very convincing study done with evidence," he said, adding it's impossible to even consider the idea yet because the government has done no analysis of it so far.

"We don't have the answers," he said.

Fassbender said he and other mayors want to pin down the Liberals and the Opposition parties on what they will do ahead of the next election.

Canadian Taxpayers' Federation B.C. director Jordan Bateman said the Port Mann toll discounts make sense to reduce administration costs but he'd also prefer a look at tolling reform.

"We wouldn't be averse to seeing the province head towards a road pricing system," he said. "Provided it was fair and equitable across the region and only if it's tied to a corresponding decrease in the gas tax."

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