Tolls on two Vancouver-area bridges will be eliminated on Sept. 1 – a commitment that was a key part of the NDP's platform in the spring election campaign as the party successfully courted suburban voters.
Friday's announcement by Premier John Horgan, which applies to the Port Mann and Golden Ears bridges over the Fraser River, was immediately denounced by the BC Green Party, which is supporting the NDP in the minority legislature, as a "reckless" measure that carries considerable cost with little benefit. The opposition Liberals, who had promised a less-aggressive approach to reducing tolls, said it was unaffordable.
Mr. Horgan defended the toll announcement as part of his government's plan to make life more affordable.
"It's a proud day for my colleagues, who have made it absolutely clear during the election campaign that we were committed to affordability, we were committed to making life more affordable for transportation users," Mr. Horgan told a news conference along the Fraser River in Port Coquitlam, east of Vancouver.
He noted that some people have been travelling out of their way to avoid tolls because they cannot afford them. On average, families are paying an average of $1,500 a year. Tolls on the Port Mann Bridge, for example, range between $3.15 for cars, pickup trucks and SUVs and $9.45 for commercial vehicles.
He also said it was unfair for drivers in one part of the province to pay tolls when drivers in other parts of the province do not. "If you live in Kelowna, you don't pay tolls to cross a bridge. If you live on Vancouver Island, you don't pay tolls to use the highway," Mr. Horgan said. "These tolls, in my opinion, are unfair to people in the Lower Mainland."
The government said that lifting the tolls will cost the province an additional $132-million for the remainder of the fiscal year. The government said it will also cost $135-million a year for "the next few years" to cover lost revenue from the Port Mann Bridge. Mr. Horgan said the government will work with TransLink, which owns the Golden Ears Bridge, to determine how much it will cost to cover lost tolls on that bridge.
Those costs also include $12-million to wind down tolling operations for both bridges. At least 180 workers in tolling operations stand to be affected, and will be provided severance, said Transportation Minister Claire Trevena.
Mr. Horgan said the $132-million cost this year can be covered in the government's current fiscal plan, and a government statement said continuing costs will be covered in the budget.
The BC NDP has committed to a budget update on Sept. 11, which may shed additional light on the government's plan to pay for its promise.
During the election campaign, the New Democrats said they would cover the cost of eliminating the tolls by emptying a so-called "LNG prosperity fund" set up by the former Liberal government. The party said the money would cover the costs associated with the lost tolls for three years, but did not say what would happen after that money ran out.
Mr. Horgan said the $3.6-billion still owing on the Port Mann Bridge will be transferred to the province's debt. "This is traditionally how all infrastructure has been paid for," the Premier said.
Liberal transportation critic Jordan Sturdy said the party supports "responsible spending decisions" to ease stresses related to affordability. "But we also want to make sure that we are not leaving behind an unnecessary, massive level of debt for our future generations to pay off."
But Lindsay Tedds, an associate professor in the public administration school at the University of Victoria, said tolls from the bridge have never been able to cover its costs so, at some point, taking on more debt from the bridge would have been inevitable. "This wasn't a self-supporting enterprise," she said in an interview on Friday.
She also noted that the BC Liberals, during the spring election, had proposed to reduce tolls so there would have been an impact on public finances anyway had they remained in government.
The election ended with a minority government. The NDP and the BC Green Party eventually united to defeat the Liberals in a confidence vote and the lieutenant governor asked Mr. Horgan to form a government, which he did with Green support.
The Port Mann Bridge was opened in 2012 after being built for $3.3-billion. As operating costs have exceeded toll revenue, the total debt for the bridge has increased to $3.6-billion.
The Golden Ears Bridge, which is owned and operated by the region's transportation authority, TransLink, was built for $900-million and opened in 2009. Its current debt is $1.1-billion.
Asked about road pricing in general, Mr. Horgan said he is awaiting the outcome of the Mayor's Council's review of its options in this area.
Friday's announcement was denounced by BC Green Leader Andrew Weaver, whose party is using its three seats in the legislature to support the NDP.
"It's unfortunate that the government has decided to proceed with this reckless policy," Mr. Weaver said in a statement.
While Mr. Weaver acknowledged the "affordability crisis" facing British Columbians, he said government spending to axe the tolls could have been better spend on education, student housing and child care.
Mr. Weaver described tolls as an "excellent policy tool to manage transport demand."