Opinion Column

Bridge tolls are smart policy

By Steve Burgess

Tolls on bridges is smart, but unpopular, policy for governments, argues Steve Burgess. (Tom Braid/Postmedia Network/Files)

Tolls on bridges is smart, but unpopular, policy for governments, argues Steve Burgess. (Tom Braid/Postmedia Network/Files)

The body politic is supposed to be like a family. Politicians are supposed to be the parents. The children want ice cream for breakfast. The adults say no. Once the tantrum is over the eventual result is a nutritious diet and a healthy, growing family. Alas, it doesn't usually work that way, for the reason that in actual families children are not allowed to dump their parents and pick new ones who promise to stuff them full of Rocky Road and mocha chocolate chip ice cream five times a day. Politicians who run on a platform of spinach and broccoli for strong bones do not tend to get re-elected.

The NDP made a number of promises last election, and not all of them were the equivalent of a giant Oreo Blizzard. But this week the John Horgan government served up a big gooey sundae with butterscotch syrup by eliminating bridge tolls. It was a popular promise, just as replacing schools with bouncy castles would win support from a certain demographic. But tolls are smart policy. Unpopular, but smart.

Drivers are an entitled bunch. Decades of motorist privilege have created a sense that the internal combustion engine is God's plan for humanity and those who do not bow down at the gas pump should be punished. I have heard people advocate a road tax for bicycles, presumably to pay for the damage cyclists do when bouncing off car fenders. Most Canadian cities are designed for the automobile, and if you are happy about that then Mississauga, Ont. must be your idea of Paradise. Cars will continue to dominate our urban landscape for the foreseeable future — it seems too late to change that now — but wise policy recognizes the real environmental and infrastructure costs of driving and seeks to create more space for alternatives. But good luck with that policy at election time. The current Vancouver city council's attempts to build more cycling infrastructure have already caused local motorists to lose their minds. To listen to some local drivers you'd think Mayor Gregor Robertson starts every council meeting by drowning a sack of kittens.

One legitimate argument against the bridge tolls is that they are unfair to certain regions at the expense of others. Fine; spread the costs equally with lower tolls on all crossings or a more general fee system, sometimes called "mobility pricing." Or we could just say to hell with it and let Premier Dad drive us all to the Dairy Queen for breakfast.