Traffic on the tolled Port Mann Bridge. Heavy trucks pay $9 to cross there

Port Mann Bridge toll changes eyed for trucks

Monthly pass, other breaks urged to shift big rigs off free Pattullo Bridge

The provincial government is considering changes to how much it charges trucks to cross the tolled Port Mann Bridge.

Most regular drivers face a doubling in the tolls they pay from $1.50 to $3 a crossing come December, when year-long half price discounts expire that were offered to encourage early sign-ups.

That increase is “locked in” and won’t be reconsidered, says Max Logan, director of the province’s Transportation Investment Corp. that oversees the Port Mann.

But he said other ideas to assist trucks are being contemplated.

The main one is a call from truckers for a monthly pass option for heavy trucks, similar to the monthly passes offered to other vehicle types that give unlimited bridge use for the price of 50 regular trips.

He said his staff are assessing how such a pass would be priced to ensure it doesn’t undermine the bridge’s repayment timeline.

“If you are giving away a certain number of trips for free over and above whatever the monthly pass is set at that’s money that’s not being collected and not going to pay for the bridge,” Logan cautioned. “No decisions have been made.”

Some changes to truck classifications have also been urged to put some trucks into cheaper toll brackets.

Also being studied, Logan said, are implications of time-of-day pricing ideas to reduce vehicle tolls at off-peak times, but added that’s more likely to be pursued over the long term.

New Westminster councillors on Monday called for lower Port Mann tolls for trucks to attract more of them back from the congested Pattullo Bridge, which is the nearest untolled crossing.

They argue truck traffic through New West has surged since tolls were slapped on the Highway 1 crossing late last year and a lower toll than the $9 now charged for heavy trucks at the Port Mann would help.

“That’s a pretty hefty price to have a crossing, I can certainly see why truck traffic is using the Pattullo Bridge,” New West Coun. Jonathan Coté said.

He also said tolling the Pattullo could be another solution, or else banning trucks from the bridge altogether – although the province and TransLink have always ruled out a truck ban as contrary to goods movement needs.

According to the latest TransLink statistics, regular vehicle traffic over the Pattullo was up 11 per cent in mid-September compared to late November last year, before tolls were added to the Port Mann. And the number of heavy trucks crossing the Pattullo – often straddling both lanes – was up 14 per cent.

Unlike other drivers, truckers got no introductory discount to use the Port Mann, but they do get a permanent 50 per cent break if they cross the toll bridge at night.

B.C. Trucking Association president and CEO Louise Yako doesn’t think that half price toll has prompted many more trucks to use the Port Mann overnight.

She said the reality is that truckers can’t haul after regular hours if their customers won’t open their businesses and receive shipments at night.

Likewise, Yako predicts a reduced Port Mann toll for trucks in the day may not have much effect at the Pattullo, which she said is used by many truckers because it’s the route that makes the most sense for them, not strictly to avoid paying tolls.

“We wouldn’t say no if the tolls were to be reduced,” Yako said. “None of us would say no to a gift. But I’m not sure it’s the panacea that New West council expects it to be.”

Logan also said the number of trucks crossing the Port Mann has gone up – he cited an 18 per cent gain as of July compared to the same month in 2011 and a 25 per cent increase from December of 2012.

“The numbers on Port Mann don’t indicate the tolls are dissuading trucks from travelling on Highway 1,” he said.

Overall traffic flows are down slightly – 3.4 million vehicle crossed in August compared to 3.6 million that used the old untolled Port Mann in August of 2011.

Asked if more traffic will divert to free bridges when tolls go up in December, Logan said there will be “lots of fluctuation” in traffic patterns as drivers try out their options.

Pressure on the Pattullo may also shift somewhat when the province completes and opens the South Fraser Perimeter Road, slated to happen Dec. 1 at the same time the Port Mann toll discounts run out.

That will open another route for drivers who don’t want to pay tolls to quickly reach the Alex Fraser Bridge, instead of the Pattullo.

Logan said all the lanes of the Highway 1 corridor upgrade should be open by December, giving drivers further time savings.

TransLink aims to replace the 76-year-old Pattullo and tolls are an option to pay for it.

New Westminster favours a new bridge alignment that would connect Surrey to Coquitlam, bypassing New West.

– with files from Grant Granger

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