Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Tolls to be eliminated on Port Mann and Golden Ears bridges

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CBC News image

This was, of course, a major plank for the NDP election campaign. I am referring to the CBC story, but it will be all over mainstream media.

“These tolls are unfair to people who live in the Lower Mainland and to people who live in particular areas of British Columbia. If you live in Kelowna, you don’t pay tolls to cross a bridge,” Horgan said. “You shouldn’t have to pay tolls because of where you live.”

Which is true, and fair enough as far as it goes, but it does not go far enough.

The problem is based in the policies of the previous government, which held that tolls were acceptable as long as there was a free alternative. But they had also secured votes in the interior by cancelling the tolls on the Coquihalla. Because the alternative was much slower than the toll road. There is also the Vancouver precedent of the Lions’ Gate Bridge, which was built by developers and had a toll until it was taken over by the province.

But the other problem was the Public Private Partnership model used by the BC Liberals, which I have lamented here more than once. It deliberately kept the revenue risk in the public sector. Taxpayers were on the hook if traffic did not reach expectations – which was exactly the case with both the Port Mann and the Golden Ears. In the case of the Port Mann the congestion on the aging, overdue for replacement, Patullo Bridge – which the province had downloaded to the GVTA along with the Knight Street and Canoe Pass bridges. They were also long overdue for strengthening – the former due to the seismic risk, the latter to satisfy some potato distributor who thought Westham Island was a good place for a distribution centre. In the case of the Golden Ears, money that Translink was collecting that ought to have gone to improving transit service was diverted to the pockets of the private sector partners in the P3.

The reason that the forecasts were so far out of whack is also something I have covered here. When market research surveys were done people were asked if they were willing to pay tolls – having first been told that they would save time by using the new bridges. Of course respondents would say yes to a question framed that way: any other response would sound stupid. But the reality is what people do when faced with a toll is that they seem to be more than willing to put up with the delay if they can keep the money for other needs. Also, not stupid at all.

So yes tolls are unpopular but also the way the BC Liberals used tolls was exceptionally unfair. Money going to investors in the Golden Ears should have been used to retain the bus pass for the low income transit users, and to increase both HandyDART and bus service in lower density parts of the region.

The problem we now face is that picture at the top I have taken from the CBC. The truth podium will now be trotted out as soon as Horgan – or someone from Translink – dares mention road user pricing, which is not really the same thing as a bridge toll with a toll free alternative. Congestion pricing imposes a fee for using roads when so many people want to drive that no-one gets very far, very fast. The alternatives are walking,  cycling and transit – which are either free or low cost, but also much more efficient users of road space than the typical single occupant vehicle.


And it is pricing that existing road space, which is so valuable at peak periods, to achieve greater efficiency that policy is aimed at, not lining the pockets of capitalist profiteers. The fact that the funds then get used to build exclusive, separated bus and bike lanes, better sidewalks and public spaces as well as increasing transit service is a happy but very necessary outcome. Road pricing cuts down the attraction of driving but increases overall mobility by far more than the lost car trips. Less air pollution, noise, loss of lives and injuries are all bonuses!

One of the things that this story also illustrates nicely is that there is no GreenNDP coalition. The two partners have a very different approach.

Green Party Leader Andrew Weaver immediately slammed the NDP government for the move.

“It’s unfortunate that the government has decided to proceed with this reckless policy,” Weaver said in a press release.

“There is no question that the affordability crisis facing so many British Columbians is a significant concern. However, this policy is high cost and low impact.”

He contended the province would get a higher return on investment for programs targeting things like education, student housing and child care.

“Moreover, making such a massive addition to our debt risks raising interest on all debt, which ultimately prevents government from being able to invest more in important social programs,” Weaver said.

In contrast, Horgan insisted the loss of toll revenue shouldn’t affect the province’s borrowing costs.

But Weaver added that tolls can help encourage drivers to find other modes of transportation, which helps to reduce congestion and pollution.

Port Coquitlam Mayor Greg Moore echoed those concerns in a tweet Friday morning, asking if eliminating tolls could “shift transit users back to their cars and thus increase commute times.”

But the story then tries to point out that “road pricing is still on the table”. But I am not so sure. Maybe now that the “need” for a referendum has been removed, perhaps the knee jerk response of the electorate to catch phrases, sound bites and dog whistles will not matter as much as it did last time. But I think the appeal of “Toll Free BC” will have much more resonance than reuse of the congestion gif – even on many blogs.

And we are still paying MSP

Written by Stephen Rees

August 25, 2017 at 1:45 pm

Posted in Transportation

One Response

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  1. Mr Weaver is a posterchild of how hypocrit a politician can be.
    Mr Weaver today indulges himself in the media to say all the bad he think of the NDP toll policy…but when it will be time to vote, Mr Weaver has already pledged, he will be a good poodle…and will vote the budget which will include the toll removal
    so please mr Weaver: Shut up…


    August 25, 2017 at 11:16 pm

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