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Unfair to charge full toll ahead of finished bridge: critic

Eighty per cent of drivers who regularly use the Port Mann Bridge signed up early enough to get a $1.50 half-price toll for the first year. That discount is now over and all regular vehicles pay $3.  - Ministry of Transportation
Eighty per cent of drivers who regularly use the Port Mann Bridge signed up early enough to get a $1.50 half-price toll for the first year. That discount is now over and all regular vehicles pay $3.
— image credit: Ministry of Transportation

Most drivers crossing the Port Mann Bridge are now paying twice as much after a year-long half-price discount ended Jan. 1 and $3 regular tolls took effect.

That may spur more motorists to divert to the free Pattullo Bridge, or even to the Alex Fraser Bridge or Massey Tunnel via the newly opened South Fraser Perimeter Road.

"I guess I'm swimming across the river from now on," tweeted Langley's Taylor Reeves.

"The Pattullo looks very good now," added Mike Palichuk.

Jordan Bateman, B.C. director with the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, said it's unfair that the province ended the introductory discount when the Port Mann/Highway 1 project is not yet finished.

"I'm pretty disappointed they've decided to go to the full tolls without having the full bridge open," Bateman said.

The province says the additional lanes now open west of the Port Mann are delivering the full travel time savings, but the bridge itself will have eight rather than all 10 lanes open for much of this year while work continues to dismantle the old span.

"We still don't have the much-promised Surrey-to-Coquitlam lane over the bridge," Bateman said. "There's still tonnes of weird detours for exits and temporary signage and overnight lane closures. I'm not sure why we're paying full price for something that isn't fully finished."

Provincial officials say the extra two lanes are for future capacity and won't result in any immediate time savings.

Bateman predicts more drivers will dodge the $6 round-trip toll by using the Pattullo – which he said is "the last bridge you want to put more traffic on" – or the free crossings further south.

The full South Fraser Perimeter Road (SFPR) is now open, speeding access to those crossings from Highway 1.

"It will be interesting to see what the impact of that road is," Bateman said, adding north Langley residents can now reach the Tsawwassen ferry terminal in just 40 minutes.

Bateman said it was a mistake for the province to announce the new bridge to replace the Massey Tunnel without waiting to gauge the impacts from the SFPR and the increased Port Mann tolls.

"With the doubling of the toll what happens if it's actually the Pattullo that sees a massive increase and the bottleneck there ends up being worse than Highway 99?" he asked. "When you drop a rock into a pond you need to wait and see where the ripples go, but government may have painted itself into a corner."

Bateman said the "weird piecemeal tolling" of the region's bridges is a big problem and clearly unfair to South of the Fraser residents.

Metro mayors have suggested some form of regional tolling or road pricing so motorists don't drive farther than necessary to avoid tolls.

But Bateman doubts that's the best solution, adding such a system could raise serious privacy concerns about government knowing the movements of motorists.

Transportation Minister Todd Stone has said the province may review its long-standing tolling policy, which may open the door to reform.

B.C. Trucking Association vice-president Trace Acres said truckers will test different routes to see what works best for them.

Large trucks pay $9 to cross the Port Mann and there was no introductory discount, so there's no change or increased incentive for them to seek free routes.

But Acres noted the full opening of the SFPR may give them easier access to free crossings.

Medium-sized trucks lost their $1.50 discount Monday and now pay $6 per crossing instead of $4.50.

"It's not a doubling of the rate like we're seeing with passenger vehicles," Acres said. "It's about a 33 per cent increase."

Despite polls showing strong opposition to the toll, transportation ministry officials say traffic counts show many people use the bridge.

In November, 2.86 million vehicles crossed, down about 10 per cent from 3.18 million in November of 2011.

But ministry officials say crossings are up 15 to 20 per cent during the morning westbound rush when congestion is worst and paying the toll delivers the most time savings.

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