New toll bridge assumes more drivers will pay to cross
Despite growing evidence motorists will drive out of their way to avoid tolls, the provincial government is counting on many more drivers paying to cross the tolled Port Mann Bridge than it currently carries for free.
And if that optimistic forecast fails to materialize, the pricey project may gush red ink for years to come.
The new 10-lane bridge is expected to rake in $175 million in tolls in its first full year of operations in 2013, according to numbers tabled this month with the provincial budget.
That's based on a traffic forecast of 150,000 daily users paying tolls – 20 per cent more than the 125,000 who crossed for free in 2007 and about seven per cent more than the 140,000 the bridge is expected to carry this year.
But even at that level, the Port Mann Bridge is expected to lose money because toll revenues won't yet match the province's annual costs of debt servicing and paying the private operators.
The Transportation Investment Corp. – B.C.'s Crown corporation created to oversee the Port Mann/Highway 1 project and ensure the tolls eventually cover the $3.3-billion cost – predicts significant subsidies in the initial years, with the Port Mann starting to break even in 2017.
That break-even date, however, depends on the number of daily paying drivers climbing to between 175,000 and 180,000, and tolls exceeding $200 million. By 2021, the bridge is expected to carry 189,000 vehicles per day.
The rosy forecasts are in contrast with the experience so far at the tolled Golden Ears Bridge, where traffic levels and toll revenues are so far well below what TransLink expected, meaning it will be subsidized longer than planned.
But Transportation Investment Corp. spokesman Max Logan rejects that comparison, noting the Golden Ears created a new link where use is expected to build over time.
"We are looking at a very different profile of user and profile of traffic for the Port Mann Bridge than the Golden Ears Bridge," he said.
"We're looking at mainly established users on the corridor whom we expect to continue to use the Port Mann."
Some regular Port Mann users are expected to divert to the Pattullo or Alex Fraser bridges to cross the Fraser River for free, Logan acknowledged.
"But we expect there are other drivers who are using crossings like the Pattullo who will move back to the Port Mann despite the toll due to the fairly dramatic travel time savings they're going to experience."
Regular cars will be charged a minimum $3 to cross one-way, provided they use a transponder or pay within two days – otherwise the cost will be $5.30. The base toll will rise 2.5 per cent a year.
Private bidders to build the project conducted their own traffic volume modeling, which Logan said confirmed the province's traffic estimates.
They have not been revised in light of the financial downturn or the Golden Ears track record and are based on the Pattullo remaining a free crossing.
The provincial government has promised the tolls will come off the Port Mann when it's paid for – at the end of the 35-year contract with the partners that are building, operating and maintaining it.
But if drivers' response is lukewarm and the tolls don't ultimately cover the costs, Victoria could be forced to either absorb a loss on the bridge on behalf of taxpayers or keep tolls in place beyond 2048.
Logan said there is some wriggle room – although he could not say how much – in the estimates to ensure all the costs can be recovered over 35 years with somewhat less than the forecast traffic volumes.
Surrey trucker Todd Norberg said he and nearly everyone he knows will avoid the tolled Port Mann "like the plague" unless they have no other choice.
"People are going to either transfer their jobs or they're going to avoid it altogether," he predicts. "The only people who are going to be crossing it are the wealthy and the impatient drivers."
Norberg said it's "absolutely criminal" to toll the main artery into Vancouver, penalizing people whose family or jobs regularly take them back and forth across the river.
He has his own prediction of what will happen when the tolls kick in: huge traffic jams in Surrey, Delta, New Westminster and Burnaby as commuters head for the free crossings.
Planners could even test motorists distaste for tolls, Norberg suggested, by making the Golden Ears Bridge free for two months to compare against its use with tolls.
Outside experts say the Port Mann growth forecasts look out of step with the experience elsewhere.
Seattle has built toll lanes allowing those who pay to bypass congestion on Highway 167.
But Clark Williams-Derry of the Sightline Institute says the tolls aren't even coming close to paying for the cost of the electronic toll collection system.
"People aren't willing to pay for car trips as much as planners thought they would," he said.
Rising fuel prices and other factors may also mean people opt to drive less than they did before, he added.
Williams-Derry thinks the trend of denser home construction is also creating more walkable urban neighbourhoods and less need for residents to drive, while simultaneously making improved transit service more viable.
Victoria Transportation Policy Institute founder Todd Litman agrees, noting the steady automobile traffic growth rates planners have assumed would continue indefinitely have levelled off.
"People are more price-sensitive than what transportation modellers used to think," Litman said. "They're more likely to change their behaviour than what people used to think. This may result in significantly less toll revenue than what the modelers predict."
B.C.'s rising carbon tax is another factor that gradually deters car use, NDP transportation critic Harry Bains said.
"These (Port Mann) projections are highly questionable when you consider all those arguments," he said.
While some critics of tolling the Port Mann argue a consistent policy of tolling all bridges or major routes in Metro Vancouver is needed, Bains calls that a knee-jerk reaction.
"Fairness doesn't mean that you toll everything," he said, but added a more realistic comprehensive tolling policy for the province is needed.
Currently, B.C.'s tolling policy allows tolls to be charged only on new or significantly improved infrastructure and only when drivers are able to use a reasonable free alternative.