KAMLOOPS — The NDP government this week announced it was going to eliminate tolls on the Port Mann and the Golden Ears bridges.
It’s probably the first of many decisions the NDP government will make to support its voting base in the Lower Mainland. The NDP campaigned on removing the tolls, and they are now going ahead with their plan. It certainly isn’t unexpected. The NDP need to ensure they maintain their support in the Lower Mainland, as those are the people who put them into power. It’s the wrong move, in my view, because it means everyone in the province is paying for bridges that only people in the Lower Mainland are using. That means you and I are paying for people in Vancouver to get around. It means that millions of dollars every year is being added to the provincial debt. I agree with the Green Party that this is the wrong move. As Andrew Weaver points out, transport demand management reduces pollution and emissions, alleviates congestion and helps pay for costly infrastructure.
Transportation Minister Claire Trevena made a somewhat contradictory statement, saying “unlike the previous government, we’re not going to pit one region of the province against the other.” That statement is ludicrous because that’s exactly what it does do. Lower Mainland residents are saving $1500 a year if they use the bridges frequently, and that cost will be going on to the debt load that we carry. So I really don’t know what Ms. Trevena was trying to say. The Liberals had suggested capping the bill for bridge users at $500, which made much more sense. And what will happen to the huge costs when the George Massey Tunnel needs to be replaced. Instead of a toll, if the NDP continues its new practice, we’ll be on the hook for that one too. Now you can obviously argue that four-laning the Trans Canada to Alberta or putting new highways into the Kootenays doesn’t benefit people in the Lower Mainland, so why should they pay for those? And that’s probably a fair comment. But transportation needs to move supplies throughout the province is critical. In the Lower Mainland, a whole lot of the use of those bridges is the result of people who don’t want to live close to their work, and put strain on the transportation system to get around to suit their own tastes. How many people travel from Langley to downtown Vancouver each day because they don’t want to live downtown? How many go from Richmond to the North Shore? People want express service at no cost to satisfy their own personal desires. If you have to pay a toll to satisfy your desire for a higher standard of living, or because you want a cheaper place to live, that’s your choice. If people lived closer to their place of work, maybe they wouldn’t have placed so much demand on the system.
Weaver calls the removal of tolls “reckless” and he's not wrong. I will suggest to you that the way tolls have been implemented has not been the most effective. If tolls were used to pay for the cost of the bridges, or maintenance of the highway system, I think that’s much more acceptable than putting the funds into general revenue. That’s why I always advocated that the toll on the Coquihalla should have been used to maintain that highway. Even then, I don’t think the toll on that highway should have been removed.
While some will benefit from having the tolls removed, it’s not being done for the right reasons. I think the move is a political one to shore up the votes on the Lower Mainland. But will the move backfire down the road? That’s a story for another day, when we’ll talk about how the three parties will tackle the next provincial election. With the Greens now having questioned a couple of moves the NDP is making, how long can the two-party agreement remain viable?