In a move B.C.'s Premier links to her commitment to cutting costs for families, the embattled Liberal government announced a 50-per-cent discount in planned tolls for the new $3.3-billion Port Mann Bridge that connects Coquitlam to Surrey.
But new Transportation Minister Mary Polak played down the potential political traction of the measure. She suggested that it would take much more than one major policy move to turn things around for the Liberals, who – according to a poll released Wednesday – are running 20 points behind the oppositon New Democrats.
"We have an awful lot of work to do to be able to put forward a platform that British Columbians can support come May, 2013," Ms. Polak told reporters at a news conference Wednesday.
Premier Christy Clark is on an Asian trade mission but tweeted Wednesday, "Making things more affordable for families. Port Mann Bridge tolls start at $1.50 for passenger vehicles – 50 per cent less than planned." She has stressed that her government is committed to easing the financial burden that taxes, fees and other costs place on families.
As she unveiled a new cabinet last week, Ms. Clark created a new working group within cabinet that she said will focus on family affordability.
Ms. Polak, a Langley, B.C. resident who will have an easier commute as a result of the new bridge, was moved into transportation in that cabinet shuffle.
The minister said that $1.50 per vehicle toll will begin in December as eight of the bridge's 10 lanes open – half as many as originally planned.
Drivers will pay an introductory $1.50 fee for three months. The discount will continue for a year for drivers who register for a free windshield decal by February of 2013. If drivers don't register, they will be hit with the full $3 toll.
The new 2,020-metre bridge – the longest in Western Canada – is one of the biggest transportation projects in B.C. history. It replaces an existing structure opened in 1964 and is aimed at clearing traffic bottlenecks and cutting travel times between the booming suburbs south of the Fraser River and the northern areas of the Lower Mainland.
The opposition New Democrats seized on the announcement as a deperate move by the government. "What I have seen here is electioneering – nothing more," said Harry Bains, the NDP transportation critic.
He said any relief now would have to be paid later under the terms of the deal the province signed with the Trqansportation Investment Corporation, and there was a possibility tolls could be increased if there wasn't enough money raised.
The minister, however, said the government and the TI Corp. have calculated they can offer the break while still paying for the bridge as scheduled over the next 40 years.
"It's like finalizing what you're going to pay for your mortgage on your house," Ms. Polak said. "You might have an initial idea of what things are going to amount to, but you don't know truly until you sit down, crunch the final numbers and then see how that's going to be amortized over the life of your mortgage.
"We have managed to work out that we can reduce this amount yet still be able to meet our targets. We wouldn't have been able to be that detailed until we crunched the final numbers,"
Langley Mayor Peter Fassbender, declaring he supports the announced policy, said there's no doubt that political calculations are under way, but no one should be surprised by that reality.
Mr. Fassbender said that decisions were necessary with the bridge opening in December, and the "prudent" policy announced Wednesday opens the door for a larger, ongoing discussion on traffic and road pricing to pay for ongoing operations.