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Transport minister opens door to bridge toll reform (with video)

Transportation Minister Todd Stone is pledging to review B.C.'s provincial tolling policy that currently blocks tolls on existing roads and bridges, adding he's concerned about the unfair proliferation of tolled crossings of the Fraser River in Metro Vancouver.

Stone isn't yet saying if he's ready to support road pricing, which Metro mayors want to pursue to help fund TransLink, or perhaps small tolls on all the region's bridges – an idea repeatedly voiced by Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts.

But any tolling reform would first require the province to alter the policy, which allows tolls to be applied only to new infrastructure, and only when there's a reasonable free alternative for motorists who don't want to pay.

That proviso has drawn scorn from drivers in Surrey, who now pay to cross the Port Mann Bridge, in addition to the Golden Ears Bridge, and must divert to the aging Pattullo Bridge to avoid paying.

"Our tolling policy is over 10 years old," Stone told Surrey Board of Trade members Thursday, and acknowledged that the Pattullo Bridge and Massey Tunnel could both be replaced with toll bridges as well.

"You start looking at the crossings at that point that potentially could have tolls on and to me this then becomes an issue of fairness and equity for the hard-working people of South of the Fraser."

He said the province would face "pretty big questions" about the validity of the policy if both the Pattullo and Massey crossings are also tolled, leaving the Alex Fraser as the only free crossing.

Stone also told the business audience he expects to officially open the full 40-kilometre $1.26-billion South Fraser Perimeter Road before Christmas.

Stone sidestepped questions on whether light rail or SkyTrain technology should be used to extend rapid transit in Surrey.

The minister had no answers on what the referendum question will be or when the vote will take place, except that he hopes to work all that out with the mayors "very soon."

"All of us have an interest in making sure this transit referendum succeeds," he told the business leaders, adding road congestion costs the region $1.5 billion a year.

He said he wants the costs of the referendum minimized, and noted the price tag changes depending on whether or not the plebiscite is conducted with the 2014 municipal elections and whether it's a conventional vote or a mail-in ballot.

Any new funding sources going to referendum must be affordable for voters, Stone added.

Many mayors and other observers have said they fear voters will shoot down any higher taxes for TransLink, leaving the region mired in worsening gridlock.

But Stone countered that 60 other jurisdictions in North America have held transit improvement votes since 2012 and three quarters of them have approved higher taxes.

The key to success, he said, is a very clear compelling vision, a large coalition of supporters, a simple specific question and usually just one funding source.

NDP transportation critic Claire Trevena said the referendum strategy is wrong-headed and the government should instead give the mayors' council the power and responsibility to raise the money TransLink needs.

"You don't go to referendum for every question, you elect representatives to answer them," Trevena said. "To be turning around to the people every day and saying we're going to have a referendum on this is American-style politics, it's not our style of politics."

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