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The BC Liberals have promised to cap bridge tolls at $500 per vehicle, while the BC NDP have pledged to eliminate tolls altogether as the parties compete for suburban votes.

Jimmy Jeong/The Globe and Mail

Another provincial election. Another grenade thrown into rational transportation planning in the region in favour of shameless pandering for votes.

That's what it looked like to many in the first week of the 2017 provincial election campaign, as the Liberals and NDP competed to see who could offer the biggest break from bridge tolls to precious suburban voters who drive. (The NDP won, by saying the party would eliminate tolls altogether, a better deal even than the Liberals' promise to cap tolls at $500 per vehicle.)

Local mayors were dismayed at what appeared to be yet another derailing of their efforts to come up with a coherent transit plan for the region that included a move towards mobility pricing – a system that could see drivers pay to use the road system based on anything from distance travelled to checkpoints crossed to time of day.

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Stephen Quinn: Capping – or scrapping – tolls is no solution in British Columbia

The toll elimination had all the signs of sending a message that provincial politicians will forever be too nervous to ask drivers to pay for their use of the road system.

"It may be good politics but it's bad public policy," said New Westminster Mayor Jonathan Coté, who is heading the regional committee to examine transit-funding alternatives.

The NDP has defended their decision by emphasizing that it's unfair to ask people who live or work south of the Fraser to pay for infrastructure when no one else in the province does.

But Mr. Coté pointed out, as did a swathe of transit advocates, that the idea of charging drivers to use the road network isn't just about generating revenue.

"It's about demand management and using (pricing) to reduce congestion," said the mayor. "Simply adding roads and public transit is not going to be enough. We were hoping to use mobility pricing to shape driver behaviour, to encourage people to drive in off-peak hours."

It's certainly not new to B.C. politics that transit and transportation turn into flashpoints during an election, especially since the Lower Mainland got its own transportation authority – TransLink – in 2000.

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The NDP started the tradition of TransLink-confounding bombshells in 2001, when then-premier Ujjal Dosanjh backed away from allowing the agency to charge a $75 vehicle levy on the eve of the election that year. It was something the agency said was the last funding piece needed to ensure the new regional transit and road system could not just be maintained but expanded.

Ever since, there's been a fight over how TransLink can get another source of money to pay for the huge expansions needed as the population grows.

In 2013, Premier Christy Clark shot another arrow into the agency by saying that the region would have to hold a referendum on any new funding mechanism it proposed. Mayors put together a 10-year transit plan, proposed a .5-per-cent sales tax to pay for it, and saw that idea rejected by two-thirds of voters in 2015.

This year, even before the campaign started, there were signs the parties were antsy about anything that might make voters think they would be charged more for driving.

Asked by The Globe prior to the campaign start whether they supported the mayors' plan to move to mobility pricing, all three parties were ambivalent. TransLink Minister Peter Fassbender said his party would consider the mayors' ideas on mobility pricing once those ideas were more developed. NDP transportation critic David Eby repeatedly talked about how the party didn't want to do anything to make life less affordable for voters. The Green Party's Andrew Weaver said much the same.

And then the campaign announcements started. (The Greens, bucking the trend, have said cancelling tolls is not rational policy and they would keep them.)

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For many, it's a discouraging signal about transit planning in general and the move to mobility pricing in specific.

Gordon Price, a big transit booster and fellow at the SFU Centre for Dialogue, called the campaign moves "blatant vote-buying" that are aimed at the "half-dozen ridings closely competed for on either side of the (Port Mann) bridge."

He says the cap or reduction sends a bad signal.

"If you put in place a political limit, then you've really stymied the future."

His belief that the toll promises will have a long-term impact are echoed by the man who philosophically opposes him. Jordan Bateman, the local representative of the Canadian Taxpayers' Federation and the leader of the movement that defeated the sales-tax proposal, also thinks this campaign's promises will affect future decisions.

His Twitter message: "Warning NDP: If you promise end to tolls but allow mayors to bring in road pricing tax, voters will rightly feel betrayed."

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But a former NDP premier, one who is advising the current NDP on transit and transportation policy, says things aren't that dire.

Mike Harcourt admits that it was a surprise to him when his own party proposed getting rid of bridge tolls. It wasn't something he had recommended to them or even knew they were considering.

Mr. Harcourt said, however, that the move to ditch the current tolls can be productive if it becomes part of a dialogue about how to come up with a fairer system. He believes his party will do that.

He also firmly believes citizens realize that they can't use the roads for free, and that will become apparent when there is a healthy public conversation about the $2-billion cost of current congestion in the region and how to solve it.

As well, said Mr. Harcourt, who sits on the national Ecofiscal Commission that studies transportation issues among others, people need to realize that there are other big improvements the region needs – a new Queensborough Bridge, a new Knight Street Bridge, a new Oak Street Bridge – as well as the ones already being discussed. It will take a lot of money to upgrade all the infrastructure in the region, as well as provide better transit, but he believes people will understand that it's worth paying for.

"This fiction that you can get mobility and don't have to pay for it has to end."

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What's unclear at this point is what kind of conversation each of the political parties is willing to have on the subject, once the election is over.

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