COLUMN: Bridging concerns

All eyes are on the new Port Mann Bridge and its tolls as traffic begins to flow.

Tolls on the Port Mann Bridge will be half-price, for between three months to a year, depending on whether residents sign up to be part of the tolling program. This is good news for all who plan to use the bridge regularly.

The ability to purchase monthly passes is also good news, as that will most definitely save money for heavy users of the bridge.

Transportation Minister Mary Polak, in her first week on the job last week, had to deal with this major issue of toll pricing. This issue is of wide interest and deep concern to many Surrey and Delta residents. The new bridge is now operating, with eastbound traffic using it as of Tuesday.

The B.C. Liberals may get a few more votes with a reduced toll, but it is unlikely that the introductory price on tolls will give them enough votes to win some of the ridings they now hold, as long as the B.C. Conservatives are in the hunt.

A glimpse of what may become more common when the tolls go into effect came Monday morning, when a delay in stopping overnight work on the highway improvement project had westbound traffic reduced to just one lane near the bridge. This lasted until almost 8 a.m.

Traffic reporters stated that it took two hours to get between 192 Street and the bridge, and almost every other Fraser River crossing was plugged solid with vehicles seeking to avoid the Port Mann. Curiously enough, the (tolled) Golden Ears Bridge wasn’t among them.

Once tolls are no longer discounted, will that be the norm every day? Will many drivers avoid the new bridge and plug the others?

NDP transportation critic Harry Bains said the tolls are a sure thing, even if his party wins, because of a contract the provincial government has signed. But any contract can be re-negotiated and changed, at a price. The question voters need to ask NDP candidates is this – are they willing to look into the possibility of taking the tolls off the new bridge?

My guess is no, because the provincial government, no matter what its stripe, badly needs money. The latest projections have it running a $1-billion deficit, largely due to low natural gas prices.

Thus all unpopular taxes and tolls, such as the property purchase tax, BC Hydro and ICBC dividends, MSP premiums, bridge tolls, carbon tax and others are almost certain to stay in place, no matter who forms government.

Despite all the talk from politicians at the local and provincial levels, it is ultimately up to residents to find their own way out of this morass.

Nobody at the government level seems very understanding of the real challenges that most families have in balancing income and expenditures each month, although Watts at least understands the likely effect that tolls are going to have on other Fraser River crossings.

Port Mann tolls, even with a monthly pass, may be the tax straw that finally breaks many peoples’ backs.

The new bridge is welcome. When the project was announced and the economy was booming, the prospect of tolls didn’t sound all that bad.

Now that they are almost here, at a time when people’s pockets have been picked over and over, the feeling by many is one of deep trepidation.

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