COLUMN: A tolling challenge

For B.C. grow economically, the transportation system has to work – and that's an issue in Surrey.

Transportation Minister Todd Stone may get to know Surrey quite well in the next year or so.

Many of the challenges that are on his plate are directly connected to the city and the South Fraser region. He acknowledged as much when he appeared at the Surrey Board of Trade a week ago, and announced that the province’s tolling policy would be reviewed.

The tolling policy was adopted 10 years ago by the B.C. Liberal government in its first term. It states that tolls can be applied to new projects, as long as there are alternative free routes available to drivers.

In fact, the policy really goes back to the Social Credit government of Bill Bennett, when the Coquihalla Highway was opened. The highway was rushed to completion in 1986, in time for Expo 86, and a toll was applied because of excessive costs. But there was a free route available – via the Fraser Canyon.

The BC Liberals have only applied this policy to the Port Mann Bridge. While many people associate the tolled Golden Ears Bridge with the province, in fact it is a TransLink project and the province did not contribute to its cost.

However, there is talk of tolling the replacement bridge at Deas Island, which would mean three tolled crossings from South Fraser municipalities to the north side of the Fraser. At the same time, there are no tolls between Vancouver and the North Shore, or on the Sea to Sky Highway, which was extensively rebuilt after the tolling policy was adopted.

In December, the full tolls for the Port Mann kick in – $3 per vehicle registered with TrEO. That means that people who commute via the bridge will be paying $30 per week, or $120 per month to get to and from work.

People in Surrey or Delta can use the Alex Fraser Bridge or the Pattullo Bridge as an alternative. The Alex Fraser is jammed during every rush hour, and the Pattullo is not only jammed but downright dangerous.

TransLink is eyeing  additional source of revenue. One of the most talked-about is a car tax, but there could be several other taxes applied as well.

Stone is in the midst of trying to finalize details about a TransLink referendum which will likely be held in conjunction with November’s municipal elections.

One option that South Fraser mayors have pushed for is regional road tolling. That would require the change to the tolling policy that Stone is talking about. It would likely involve tolls on each river crossing, likely in the range of 50 cents to $1.

While this policy naturally isn’t popular in Vancouver or Burnaby, it is one that makes sense when it comes to raising funds for TransLink and being fair to all.

And expansion of bus service in Surrey, Delta and White Rock isn’t forthcoming until TransLink can become more stable financially. For that to happen, Stone has to act.

He’s a new minister with a challenging portfolio, one that encompasses the entire province. But for B.C. to continue to grow economically, the transportation system has to work. In this area, there remains much to be done.

Frank Bucholtz is the editor of The Langley Times. He writes weekly for The Leader.

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