Column: Ask for whom the bridge tolls

Surrey residents will soon have to pay for two of five river crossings.

The tolls on the new Port Mann Bridge may not be $3 per trip when it opens near the end of this year.

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

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 he has declined to speculate, there is widespread guessing that initial tolls will be $2. That would certainly be a significant relief to commuters who use the bridge regularly, and it may even net a few votes for the BC 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 any bridges or crossings (other than BC Ferries) elsewhere in 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 is TransLink property.

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

Both the Alex Fraser and Massey Tunnel crossings are owned by the provincial government, and there has been no suggestion of 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 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 provide needed cash for road improvements – to get all jurisdictions on the same page would be a challenge.

For example, the Arthur Laing Bridge between the airport and Vancouver is owned the federal government and operated by the Vancouver Airport Authority.

That’s not to say such a co-ordinated approach shouldn’t be attempted. In the name of fairness and additional revenue, it is well worth a concerted effort.

In the meantime, 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. If they received as good or better transit service as do others in the region, it might make sense.

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

Lekstrom says it will go ahead. We’re all waiting to see whether it will.

Frank Bucholtz writes Thursdays for the Peace Arch News. He is the editor of the Langley Times.

 

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