Recent comments by Todd Stone, BC’s Transportation and Infrastructure Minister, on tolling a new/refurbished Pattullo Bridge further muddy the issue of tolling and road pricing as a TransLink revenue source. He says a tolled Pattullo Bridge “…would seem…” to contradict the province’s tolling policy that a “free” (i.e. taxpayer subsidised) alternative must be available to any tolled structure
The Minister also hints that federal contributions to the Pattullo Bridge project may be jeopardised by proposed tolls as “… the feds have tended not to invest in [tolled] projects…”.
Both statements are concerning because they contradict earlier indications that tolling was acceptable for the Pattullo Bridge project and, indirectly, insinuate the federal government into the transit referendum discussion.
In 2013 the Minister stated that tolling “possibl[y] … could” fund a new Pattullo Bridge. While not a ringing endorsement for tolling, the Minister’s statement did indicate that Victoria would not be averse to TransLink tolling a new bridge. And certainly, there was no mention of the Pattullo as a “free” alternative.
Concerns that tolls could jeopardise federal participation in the Pattullo project are misplaced. The federal government is building the Champlain Bridge replacement in Montréal and it will be tolled “to minimise use of public funds”. Similarly, the Evergreen Line project has significant federal involvement and its users will be tolled (through their fares). So there seems to be no reason to assume the federal government will not participate in the Pattullo Bridge project, tolled or otherwise.
So what changed in the intervening months to cause the Minister to re-think Patullo Bridge tolls and also imply the provincial tolling policy also applies to TransLink?
A number of possibilities come to mind.
- Is the Minister laying the groundwork to keep road pricing and bridge tolls out of TransLink’s funding options in the upcoming referendum? But this would contradict statements he made in the Globe and Mail indicating regional Mayors could include road pricing and tolls in their transportation funding proposal.
- Does his emphasis on the Pattullo Bridge as a “free” alternative indicate that TransLink is expected to provide the “free” alternatives to provincially tolled projects such as the Port Mann Bridge and the new George Massey crossing? Are Metro Vancouver’s taxpayers to be triple-taxed (provincial taxes, tolls, and TransLink taxes) to support purely provincial projects? And if the provincial tolling policy applies to TransLink, what are the “free” alternatives for transit riders who are tolled each time they use public transit?
- By limiting TransLink’s funding options on the Patullo project, is the Minister forcing TransLink to seriously consider a smaller replacement bridge – 4 lanes vs. 6 – or even a re-furbished bridge? A smaller Pattullo could increase traffic and revenue on the province’s Port Mann Bridge. This could also drive a wedge between Metro’s mayors. Surrey favours a 6-lane replacement while New Westminster wants only 4-lanes.
These are highly speculative considerations. The likely reason for the Minister’s changing statements is ongoing provincial uncertainty on the entire issue of transit funding, tolling and road pricing and the TransLink funding referendum.
The Liberal promise to hold a referendum on future sources of TransLink funding had a populist appeal during the heat of an election. TransLink was the ideal organisation to bully on the campaign trail; it spends a lot of money, it is perceived as unaccountable and not transparent, and allegations of waste regularly receive heavy media coverage. The fact that its structure is a provincial responsibility was simply ignored.
However, the referendum discussion has opened the door (Pandora’s Box?) to serious public debate around tolling, road pricing, usage fees, vehicle levies and other revenue sources. These new revenue sources appeal to the true believers in free market economics, a source of significant Liberal support. Unfortunately for the provincial government, they are anathema to much of the voting public – particularly motorists.
The province may have created a dilemma that will prove difficult to resolve – how to retain support from these two opposing and significant constituencies?
Thus it continues to bob and weave on tolls, road pricing and the transit referendum, with conflicting statements and positions being put forth. The unfortunate lack of provincial leadership on this issue is going to make getting a winning referendum question and winning the referendum much more difficult.