Premier Christy Clark is dangling the possibility of an early reduction in tolls on the Port Mann Bridge while contradicting her transportation minister’s claim a referendum on TransLink funding would raise taxes for transit one way or another.
In a Black Press interview Friday, Clark said a planned Prosperity Fund, raised from expected liquefied natural gas royalties, can be used to pay down not just the provincial debt, but also the Port Mann/Highway 1 project debt, allowing an early cut in tolls.
“As we can afford to, we want to reduce those tolls,” Clark said. “Once we’ve paid off the debt on the Port Mann Bridge, those tolls can go down pretty substantially.”
Asked how that squares with past statements that funds benefitting Metro Vancouverites must be raised within the region, Clark said provincial debt would have “first call” on the fund, but it can also be used against BC Ferries, BC Hydro and Port Mann debt.
Clark also refused to endorse a statement by Transportation Minister Mary Polak that a regional referendum would force Metro voters to choose from revenue options for TransLink, not let them veto them all.
“If voters don’t want it, we’re not going to impose it on them,” Clark insisted.
Polak indicated Thursday there would not be a none-of-the-above option in the referendum – the outcome would have to result in new revenue for TransLink and it was just a matter of voters choosing from a menu of tools.
“We don’t know what the referendum question will look like yet,” Clark said, adding the province will work with TransLink to design it.
“I’m sure one of the options is going to be a status quo option. And the status quo option is the same thing as not approving any new funding.”
She said she hopes proposals to finance TransLink will arise that are affordable and win public support because improved transit is needed in Metro Vancouver.
Questioned about frustration in Surrey about bearing the brunt of bridge tolls, the premier said the new Port Mann Bridge also benefits Surrey more than other areas, citing reduced commute times.
“We found a way to get it done,” she said. “For people in Surrey, that’s the most important part – that it got done.”
On the Liberals’ promise to replace the Massey Tunnel, Clark wouldn’t say if the new bridge or tunnel will be tolled.
“I don’t know what it will look like at the end,” she said. “But the provincial tolling policy will apply.”
That policy is the one that allows tolls only on new infrastructure and only when there’s a free reasonable alternative.
Currently the Pattullo Bridge is the free alternative to the Port Mann, but critics say the concept would become ridiculous if either a rebuilt Pattullo or Deas crossing is tolled as well.
Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts has repeatedly called for “fair tolling” reforms and all Metro Vancouver mayors want a hard look at road pricing.
The provincial policy bars such changes and the premier said she has no plans to alter it.
“This whole idea… that we should be putting a toll on just about every road, just about every bridge, whether it’s new, whether it’s old – I just don’t agree with that,” Clark said.
“I don’t agree that people should be paying tolls on infrastructure that was built 30, 40 years ago.”
Listen to interviews with Clark, Polak: