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Reaction mixed after B.C. government announces removal of bridge tolls

Jennifer Saltman and Glenda Luymes

Traffic travels eastbound into Surrey on the Port Mann Bridge in this March 14, 2016 file photo. (Ric Ernst/Postmedia Network files)

Traffic travels eastbound into Surrey on the Port Mann Bridge in this March 14, 2016 file photo. (Ric Ernst/Postmedia Network files)

Gary Hee's weekly trips across the Port Mann Bridge will cost less after the NDP government announced the removal of tolls on both the Port Mann and Golden Ears bridges on Sept. 1.

The Surrey small business owner said he was relieved by the news after fighting the tolls for more than four years, at one point collecting 1,100 signatures for a petition that seemed to go nowhere.

"I had faith, hope and determination," he said Saturday, "and it has paid off."

But just how the government plans to pay off billions in bridge debt is causing others concern — especially those who will now share the cost of a bridge they never cross.

In a sarcastic online commentary shared dozens of times on Facebook, Lower Mainland real estate analyst Don Campbell thanked the residents of Cranbrook, Victoria, Kelowna and Prince George for paying for him to cross the Port Mann.

The senior analyst with the Real Estate Investment Network said that while the news would likely be met with appreciation by those living south of the Fraser, it could lower the province's credit rating and increase the cost of borrowing.

"It's a matter of simple math and (the) reality of making the whole province's populous pay for it, rather than users," he said in an email interview.

The elimination of tolls, a move that was also criticized by Green party Leader Andrew Weaver and the Liberal opposition, means commuters who cross the bridge twice each weekday save about $1,500 a year.

Standing next to the Fraser River with the Port Mann visible in the background Friday, Horgan called the tolls “unfair” to people south of the Fraser and said the debt from building the bridge will be transferred to B.C.’s taxpayer-supported debt load and paid for out of general revenue.

“This is traditionally how all infrastructure has been paid for across British Columbia, with the exception of the Coquihalla improvements that were made in the 1980s,” Horgan told reporters. “We can manage that within our fiscal framework and that will not have an impact (on borrowing costs), we believe, in our discussions with bond traders.”

The total debt for the money-losing Port Mann Bridge, which cost $3.3-billion to build, is expected to be $4.2 billion this fiscal year. It is supposed to be paid off by 2050.

TransLink, the regional transportation authority, owns the Golden Ears Bridge, and the contractor liability on the structure in 2016 was $1.049 billion. Financing for the Golden Ears must be repaid by 2041.

A one-year agreement has been struck between the province and TransLink for the government to make monthly payments to TransLink to cover lost toll revenue, expected to be $57 million over the next year.

TransLink was also planning to use tolls to help pay for the Pattullo Bridge replacement, which is expected to be built by 2023.

The NDP told the TransLink mayors’ council during the election campaign that it was “committed to … addressing the shortfall in revenues” for the Pattullo. But Horgan didn’t have any details about what provisions will be made for that bridge. He said that a longer-term discussion will have to take place on how the province will contribute to TransLink’s transit and transportation improvement plans.

Surrey Mayor Linda Hepner, who is vice-chair of the TransLink mayors’ council, called the announcement "great news."

“I have always said that I thought (tolling) was a burden imposed on those who live south of the Fraser or are trying to get to south of the Fraser, so I think it’s really important news and will be well-received,” she said.

In a statement, Weaver, whose Greens formed a coalition government with the NDP, called the policy “reckless” and said it would have “high cost and low impact.”

B.C. Liberal transportation critic Jordan Sturdy and finance critic Shirley Bond said the NDP announcement does not consider the long-term financial implications and effects on the province’s AAA credit rating.

Bond also suggested that it’s unfair in a different way.

“The premier himself said today that people shouldn’t have to pay tolls based on where they live,” said Bond. “Transferring the debt from these bridge projects to the province is essentially telling northern and interior British Columbians that their tax dollars will be subsidizing Metro Vancouver commuters.”

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