The B.C. Liberals are risking a substantial loss of support in the May 2017 election with a continued do-nothing approach to bridge tolling.
Independent Delta MLA Vicki Huntington and Delta Mayor Lois Jackson exposed the B.C. Liberals’ weakness on this issue last week, when discussing Jackson’s call for a $1 toll on all bridges in the Metro Vancouver region. Jackson’s press release calling for $1 tolls say they would encourage drivers to use the most convenient crossing and at the same time collect the toll revenue needed to pay for existing toll bridge financing obligations.
Unlike Transportation Minister Todd Stone, who lives in Kamloops and knows little about Metro Vancouver traffic congestion, or Premier Christy Clark, who represents West Kelowna in the legislature and has never lived south of the Fraser, Jackson knows what she is talking about. Her concern is that the Alex Fraser Bridge is rapidly becoming the most congested bridge in the region, and both Stone and Clark seem completely oblivious to the problems that creates.
The 2011 daily traffic counts on the region’s bridges had the Alex Fraser second to the Ironworkers Memorial (Second Narrows), with 117,000 vehicles crossing per day. The Second Narrows had 127,000. The Port Mann at that time had 112,000 vehicles crossing per day. That was the old five-lane Port Mann Bridge, which wasn’t tolled. The new Port Mann is attracting significantly less traffic.
Many of those vehicles have migrated to the Alex Fraser and to a lesser extent the Pattullo, which in 2011 had 68,000 vehicles crossing per day. The Pattullo is hopelessly thick with traffic all day, every day during the work week, and many large trucks use it.
Stone and Clark have stated a new bridge taking the place of the Massey Tunnel will be tolled. The Surrey and New Westminster mayors recently agreed that any replacement for the Pattullo will be tolled. If nothing else changes, that means there will be five crossings of the Fraser between Langley and Delta and four of them will be tolled. At the same time, there will be no other toll bridges in the province.
That will put enormous pressure on the Alex Fraser, Highway 91, the roads leading to the highway such as Nordel Way and 72 Avenue, and on the Queensborough Bridge in New Westminster.
Stone said there is no rush to review the provincial tolling policy, as any new bridges are at least five or six years away. Clark backed that stance, saying the province doesn’t know if it will get federal money for bridge projects and thus can’t make policy changes right away.
Both explanations are weak at best. People who live south of the Fraser and cross the tolled bridges are paying substantial amounts of money to get to work and school. Other commuters, some of whom use new bridges such as the Pitt River Bridge, pay nothing.
Clark likely doesn’t want to stir discontent in Liberal-held ridings where most people don’t pay tolls, such as those in areas of Vancouver, North Shore, Burnaby, Richmond and parts of the Tri-Cities area.
However, the natives are restless in all those ridings over other issues, such as the rising cost of housing. The B.C. Liberals are also under pressure to produce tangible results on at least one LNG plant – the primary promise of the 2013 election campaign.
Continued inaction or fumbling of the bridge tolling issue will drive away Liberal support in key Surrey ridings, in North Delta and perhaps in the two Maple Ridge ridings as well. The loss of a number of ridings in the outer areas of Metro Vancouver could mean the difference between a win or a loss for the B.C. Liberals next year.
Frank Bucholtz writes weekly for The Leader.