Of all the big-ticket promises made during the first week of this already exhausting election campaign, the most blatant example of attempted vote-buying has got to be the capping of tolls, or the outright elimination of tolls on the Port Mann and Golden Ears bridges.
Liberal Leader Christy Clark has promised to cap tolls at $500 per year for motorists using any of the toll crossings – including the yet-to-be-built 10-lane toll bridge that will replace the Massey Tunnel.
NDP Leader John Horgan has gone a step further, pledging to eliminate tolls completely. Mr. Horgan says he wants fairness and equity but so far hasn't said much about how to replace – over the long term – the roughly $140-million per year in revenue from the Port Mann Bridge alone. He says the money to cover losses for the first three years will come from the LNG "prosperity fund."
Ms. Clark meantime, who said in February of last year that the Port Mann Bridge was on track to break even (right now the bridge is losing roughly $90-million a year), hasn't explained how the province would cover the additional loss that comes with cutting its revenue by two-thirds – but she knows that Mr. Horgan's plan is too expensive.
In truth, both candidates are digging financial holes – it's just a question of size.
It's not lost on me that the same person who insisted that a referendum was needed to decide whether people in the Lower Mainland wanted to pay an additional half per cent in sales tax to fund transit is now willing to hand a future tax increase, in the form of forgone revenue, to taxpayers across the province.
Maybe there's some math in there that we don't know about. Maybe capping tolls will see more drivers who are happy to pay $500 per year for unlimited bridge use move to the Port Mann and Golden Ears bridges. Maybe it ends up being a wash. I don't know. So far no one has offered up any such figures.
Beyond the dubious economics, however, is the fact that once again provincial forces are undermining the efforts of Metro Vancouver mayors to plan and execute a long-term transportation plan for the region, namely getting people out of their cars and onto transit, reducing congestion, facilitating the movement of goods, reducing greenhouse-gas emissions and linking land use and planning to the transportation network. Mr. Horgan says the mayors know best, and he wants to support them while Christy Clark doesn't. I'm not sure how getting rid of tolls supports the mayors' efforts.
It's true that tolling only people who live south of the Fraser is unfair. It's also true that tolling is a regressive tax. The person of modest means who moves to Surrey or Langley to escape Vancouver's sky-high housing costs pays the same amount as someone earning 10 times their income.
So far though, the province has been unwilling to look seriously at the issue of road-pricing, which could bring fairness and equity to the entire region and would remind drivers that the roads aren't free.
When she announced the proposed cap on tolls, Christy Clark said this: "I believe in leaving more money in the pockets of hard-working British Columbians, not taking more out, and so I know there are all kinds of plans that all kinds of people have come up with – all kinds of schemes."
Those "schemes" are called transportation demand management – using strategies and policies, incentives and disincentives to manage traffic and the demand for road space. Tolls are part of the equation, as are parking rates, the cost of fuel and the availability of fast and reliable public transit. It's something TransLink has been working on for a long time. It's about using the space you have more effectively rather than increasing road capacity which, any expert will tell you, only leads to more single-occupancy vehicles on the road and more congestion.
As for having more money in my pocket? Sure, wouldn't we all love that. But having more money in my pocket won't build a rapid-transit line or put more buses on the road, and it will do nothing to reduce congestion. It won't get me where I need to go any faster.
Yes, figuring out how to move people and goods around a region is complicated.
It's far more complicated than an election promise that on the surface sounds like free money.
But this is certain: One way or another, we'll all end up paying.
Stephen Quinn is the host of On the Coast on CBC Radio One, 88.1 FM and 690 AM in Vancouver.