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Idea of blanket $1 bridge tolls flawed: Critic

Roughly 105,000 vehicles cross the Alex Fraser Bridge each day, according to transportation ministry data. There is no toll on the bridge – yet. - Black Press file photo
Roughly 105,000 vehicles cross the Alex Fraser Bridge each day, according to transportation ministry data. There is no toll on the bridge – yet.
— image credit: Black Press file photo

The idea of a reformed, consistent and fair system of bridge tolls in Metro Vancouver charging no more than $1 at every crossing has been repeatedly suggested by some area mayors, but one transportation observer warns the numbers don't add up.

Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts repeated the idea Jan. 16, proposing a TransLink referendum question to impose small tolls at all bridges, while reducing the Metro Vancouver gas tax and continuing to limit TransLink property tax increases to three per cent per year.

"It should be under a dollar," Watts said of universal bridge tolls that would replace the higher charges at the Port Mann and Golden Ears Bridges.

"It's not about tolling pieces of infrastructure at a high rate. It's about being fair and equitable across the region and having a coordinated, integrated transportation infrastructure plan."

Patrick Johnstone, a New Westminster blogger, says $1 tolls may sound appealing but they wouldn't generate anywhere near the amount of money TransLink needs to embark on ambitious transit upgrades, including rapid transit extensions in Surrey and along Broadway in Vancouver.

Johnstone added up daily traffic counts from 2012 for 11 major Metro bridges to arrive at an estimate of $320 million in potential annual tolls, based on 875,000 daily crossings.

But he said $220 million must be deducted to cover the annual payments the province and TransLink makes to the builders of the Port Mann and Golden Ears Bridges.

"At most, in the best case of 11 bridges, you're getting about $100 million in annual revenue," he said.

That's just seven per cent of TransLink's $1.4-billion budget.

"We're not talking about the amount of money we need over the next 10 or 15 years," Johnstone said. "I'm not against the idea of fair tolling. But a dollar isn't enough if you actually want to raise money."

The crossings Johnstone included in his calculation were the Massey Tunnel and the Lions Gate, Ironworkers Memorial, Golden Ears, Port Mann, Pattullo, Alex Fraser, Pitt River, Arthur Laing, Oak Street and Knight Street bridges.

Including the YVR-owned Arthur Laing would depend on the airport's cooperation, but the other 10 are controlled by TransLink or the province.

Johnstone excluded the Granville, Burrard and Cambie bridges in Vancouver on the assumption the City of Vancouver wouldn't agree to toll them. He likewise excluded Richmond-controlled bridges to Sea Island and eliminated the Queensborough on the basis it's more an extension of the Alex Fraser.

"There are all kinds of jurisdictional issues," Johnstone said. "It's a simple solution but unfortunately we have complex problems in our transportation system and we're not going to find a simple solution to solve them."

Johnstone said he didn't take into account any potential decrease in travel over those bridges if some toll-averse drivers reduce the number of crossings they make – another potential drain on the numbers.

Less could be available for transit if tolls also fund replacements of the Massey Tunnel and Pattullo Bridge.

One advantage of universal tolling, he said, is drivers would at least stop inefficiently driving longer distances out of their way in search of a free crossing to avoid tolls, worsening congestion.

Watts' suggestion that gas taxes be simultaneously reduced as new bridge tolls are added would further cut into any new revenues.

The Surrey mayor clarified that blanket tolls of less than $1 are just one of many potential road pricing systems, which include other models where drivers may pay to travel any significant distance on major routes.

"If you go for the model where you are going over a particular crossing then that would be under a dollar," Watts said. "If you're travelling x amount of kilometres into the downtown core then at a certain point there would be a cost triggered."

Road pricing could also address complaints that drivers who don't take toll bridges can still drive for free on most of upgraded Highway 1 or on the new South Fraser Perimeter Road.

Watts did not specify how much money she envisioned drivers potentially paying per day in combined road or bridge tolls, or how far she much she proposes to reduce the TransLink fuel tax, now at 17 cents per litre.

She said she hasn't seen Johnstone's analysis and can't comment on it.

TransLink has estimated it must locally raise $175 to $700 million more each year – on top of assumed senior government contributions – to maintain and significantly expand the system, at an expected cost of $14 to $23 billion over 30 years.

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