B.C. Conservatives and Liberals battled over bridge tolls and ferry rates Monday, a prelude to full-fledged campaigning for the May 14 provincial election.
A Conservative-proposed tax credit for users of both bridges and ferries was dismissed as unaffordable by Premier Christy Clark.
While the ferry portion of the Conservative proposal was aimed at all users of B.C. Ferries, the bridge side was targeted at right-of-centre voters south of the Fraser who pay tolls on the Port Mann and/or Golden Ears bridges.
The verbal sparring between B.C. Conservative Leader John Cummins and Ms. Clark came as both made their respective political cases to voters in two separate south-of-the-Fraser communities.
Mr. Cummins proposed a maximum annual tax credit of 40 per cent of the tolls paid on either bridge or on ferry fares as part of an effort that he said would cost a Conservative government $45-million per year.
He outlined the plan in a north Surrey hotel, noting that those who travelled across the Port Mann Bridge to get to the venue would have had to pay a toll to get there, while those living and working in Maple Ridge would have paid a toll to cross the Golden Ears Bridge.
He said it was "unfair" that residents of Surrey, Langley, Abbotsford, Maple Ridge and the Fraser Valley had to pay such tolls. "For reasons that most of us do not understand, the B.C. Liberal government has decided to make some British Columbians – based on where they live – pay a toll when they drive to and from work," he said.
"We think that folks deserve some tax relief, if you will, and that's what we're prepared to give them."
The tax credit, partly modelled on the federal Public Transit Tax Credit adopted while Mr. Cummins was a Conservative MP, would be enacted on Jan. 1, 2014 if the provincial Conservatives, who currently have no seats in the B.C. legislature, win power in the provincial election May 14.
Mr. Cummins said it was not increased spending, but rather reduced revenue that his party had calculated a Conservative government could afford.
And he suggested that by making the bridges more affordable, it would encourage more drivers to use them, driving up revenues for Translink and the Transportation Investment Corporation.
On the impasse over transit funding in the Lower Mainland, Mr. Cummins said only there are "huge problems" with Translink, mayors need a voice and the issue has to be addressed.
Ms. Clark, after a speech to the Greater Langley Chamber of Commerce a few hours later, dismissed Mr. Cummins's plan as unaffordable. "It's an example of how, when you're not in government, you can promise anything," she told reporters.
"I've seen [the B.C. Conservative] budget. It's filled with all these crazy revenue projections so I don't know how they would even keep the promises they have made until last week. Add this one and I think it would be pretty unaffordable for taxpayers."
Transportation Minister Mary Polak, also attending the luncheon, said subsidizing travel for residents of the Lower Mainland and ferry users on the B.C. coast would create regional inequities.
"I am not sure how somebody in 100 Mile House is going to feel about granting a tax break for people on the Port Mann Bridge," she said. "[Mr. Cummins] is not thinking provincially when he is making announcements like that."
Ms. Polak said the pending Liberal platform will not go far beyond policies on transit issues the Liberals have articulated in talks with mayors.
Responding to audience questions, Ms. Clark spelled out some of those points, ruling out universal road tolls and calling for affordable regional transit solutions that local taxpayers will support.