COLUMN: No transit on new bridge?

Port Mann has lanes dedicated for express buses, but so far TransLink can't fund the service.

The provincial government and TransLink are scrambling to avoid one of the biggest embarrassments imaginable.

The province is in the midst of building a major bridge and freeway project, with lanes specifically designed for transit. Yet the project could open without any transit service at all.

The Port Mann bridge replacement will have lines dedicated to transit, as will the new highway. Plans call for express buses to use the lanes and get people from Surrey and Langley to the Lougheed SkyTrain station in under 30 minutes, no matter how congested the bridge is. A huge park and ride lot is being built in Langley to accommodate people who might otherwise drive.

The transit service, if it comes about, would also give some drivers a viable alternative to paying tolls.

Yet TransLink hasn’t got the money to start the new bus service. In a classic case of overreach, it boosted the gas tax by two cents earlier this year – only to find the move helped take gas tax revenue down.

For some, it was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The tax boost came at a time of high gas prices, and gave people one more good reason not to buy gas within Metro Vancouver.

It’s a tax revolt, Canadian style. There are no signs and no rallying point. People just go where they know they can save money.

When coupled with more generous cross-border shopping exemptions from the federal government, and a high Canadian dollar, TransLink’s tax boost has driven many people to the U.S. Cross-border trips in June were at levels that haven’t been seen since 1972.

This TransLink move ended up punishing local businesses, by taking away some of their customers. Undoubtedly, some employees at small businesses have lost their jobs as a result.

People looking for a better deal on gas don’t just go south. Many go east – because in Abbotsford, Mission and other areas of the Fraser Valley, gas is often 12 cents per litre cheaper.

TransLink says it is awaiting an audit before making its next move, but it seems it will be very difficult to fund a major expansion of bus service south of the Fraser. TransLink can’t boost fares, nor can it impose a car tax. Many mayors are against any more property tax increases, and TransLink has few other sources of ready cash.

Transportation Minister Blair Lekstrom says there will be a rapid bus service, but thus far no one has said where the money will come from. If TransLink decides to go ahead with the service and there is no funding, it may mean cuts to bus routes in other parts of the region, including Vancouver and Burnaby. Politicians and citizens there will almost certainly react with outrage.

TransLink has done a few minor service adjustments to South Fraser bus routes, to take effect next week, and while this will add service on a couple of routes, none of the adjustments have anything to so with the Port Mann bus service.

The next few weeks will see just how much scrambling will take place, and may also be a prelude to next May’s provincial election. With tolls coming for sure, and bus service uncertain, the governing BC Liberals face a very bleak future in South Fraser ridings.

Meanwhile, the NDP, with a solid lead in the polls, likely won’t say anything on the issue, preferring to let the Liberals dig their own graves.

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