Opinion

COLUMN: Bridge tolls up in the air

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The tolls on the Port Mann Bridge may not be $3 per trip, when the tolling begins near the end of this year.

Transportation Minister Blair Lekstrom has mused that they could be lower for the first year the new bridge is open, as the full highway improvement project will not be complete. There will be eight lanes open instead of 10, as the old bridge needs to be taken down before all lanes can be made operational.

Any discussion of lower tolls, combined with the fact that there is a provincial election coming up in 2013, is purely coincidental.

Details of the tolling policy will be announced in early September. At that time, we’ll get some sense of where Lekstrom’s musings have led. While Lekstrom has declined to even speculate about what the tolls could be, there is pretty widespread guessing that initial tolls will be $2. If this comes about, it will certainly be a significant relief to many commuters who use the bridge regularly, and it may even net a few votes for the Liberals that they would otherwise lose.

However, it is important to think about this whole issue on a longer-term and more sustained basis. Why should tolls only be applied to the Port Mann and Golden Ears Bridges, two of the five river crossings that are most accessible to Surrey residents? Why are there no tolls on any bridges or crossings (other than BC Ferries) elsewhere in the region and the province?

One of the most challenging problems in coming up with a comprehensive policy is that so many agencies have jurisdictions over bridges. The Port Mann comes under the provincial government’s mandate, while Golden Ears Bridge is TransLink’s property.

TransLink also owns the Pattullo Bridge, which is slated to be replaced by a toll bridge at some point in time. That new bridge is likely some distance away, given TransLink’s financial challenges.

Both the Alex Fraser and Massey Tunnel crossings are also owned by the provincial government, and there has been no suggestion of any tolls on either. Alex Fraser in particular is likely to see a significant increase in traffic when tolls start on the Port Mann. The Pattullo will also see increased traffic, although how much more it can handle during rush hours is open to debate.

A number of politicians have suggested universal tolls on all bridges in the Lower Mainland of 75 cents or $1. While this would certainly make things fair, and would also provide some needed cash for road and bridge improvements, to get all the various jurisdictions on the same page would be a huge challenge.

Surrey and other South Fraser residents will pay a disproportionate amount of tolls to the province and TransLink. If Surrey residents as a whole were better off than most other regional residents, that could perhaps be justified.

But Surrey residents do not have a much higher standard of living than most other regional residents, nor do they have access to good transit service. In fact, transit service south of the Fraser is significantly worse than in many other parts of the region.

There is supposed to be a rapid bus service over the new bridge, but thus far there isn’t the funding to operate it. Lekstrom says it will go ahead. We’ll see.

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