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Metro Vancouver bridge traffic continues to shift a month after tolls removed

Jennifer Saltman

B.C. Premier John Horgan announced at a press conference on August 25, 2017 that tolls on the Port Mann and Golden Ears bridges would be cancelled September 1. (Jason Payne/Postmedia Network)

B.C. Premier John Horgan announced at a press conference on August 25, 2017 that tolls on the Port Mann and Golden Ears bridges would be cancelled September 1. (Jason Payne/Postmedia Network)

Those who use and operate the bridges and tunnel across the Fraser River noticed a major shift in traffic patterns in the days after the provincial government eliminated tolls at the start of September.

It’s a trend that’s continued through the first month of “toll-free B.C.,” according to data collected by TransLink, Transportation Investment Corporation and the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure.

Before Sept. 1, small vehicle drivers who used the Port Mann and Golden Ears bridges had to pay a toll of $3.15 or $3.20 each time they crossed. For regular commuters, the tolls added up to about $1,500 per year.

The Port Mann Bridge saw 4.36 million crossings in September, compared to 3.43 million in September 2016 — a 27-per-cent increase in traffic. The average weekday traffic on the bridge was 153,700 in September, a 22-per-cent increase over the previous September.

The Golden Ears saw a similarly large increase in traffic. There were 1.14 million vehicle crossings in September 2016, and 1.46 million this September, a 28-per-cent increase. Average daily traffic also went up 28 per cent.

“Those are big numbers,” said Gordon Price, former director of Simon Fraser University’s City Program. “It very much confirms what economists believe — that visible pricing has a really important effect on behaviour.”

The Pattullo Bridge, which took the brunt of the traffic that deviated when the Port Mann was tolled, saw an 11.5-per-cent drop in traffic in September, both total and average daily crossings.

“There’s no question that removing the tolls on Port Mann had a huge impact on the Pattullo,” Price said.

TransLink spokesman Chris Bryan said the activity on its two bridges — the Golden Ears and Pattullo — is in line with the organization’s no-toll projections.

“We anticipate the overall pattern for crossings will remain similar unless there is a significant change in either policy or infrastructure, but we still expect some fluctuation as people experiment with the timing, the route and the mode they use to get around without tolls,” Bryan said.

Bryan noted that with the Port Mann and Golden Ears, not all of the traffic increase should be attributed to toll removal — there has been some background or natural growth in bridge use between 2016 and 2017, estimated at four to five per cent.

TransLink will continue to gather data and look at the impact on people’s journeys, including the length of their commutes and whether toll removal has encouraged them to drive or take transit.

The change in volume will also factor into planning for the Pattullo Bridge replacement.

In an emailed statement, the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure acknowledged that more motorists are trying out the Port Mann and Golden Ears bridges in the absence of the tolls, which is taking some traffic away from the Pattullo.

“There are still fluctuations in volume on all crossings as motorists find the route that works best for them. This will take some time to normalize,” the ministry said.

To a lesser extent, there has been a change in traffic on the Alex Fraser Bridge and George Massey Tunnel, though it’s difficult to tell how much of that can be attributed to the toll removal.

There were five per cent fewer crossings on the Alex Fraser in the month of September compared to September 2016, and average weekday traffic was down four per cent. At the George Massey Tunnel, September crossings decreased one per cent compared to the previous September, and average weekday traffic was down two per cent.

Price said that could be due in part to toll removal, but it could also indicate that the crossings are at capacity (the tunnel in particular) at certain hours of the day or people have changed their commuting habits. His hunch is that it’s part of a longer-term trend of declining traffic in the certain parts of the region.

Anthony Perl, an urban studies professor at Simon Fraser University, said the traffic shift between bridges is an example of the effect that mobility pricing changes can have on demand in our region. This is important when considering whether to move ahead with major infrastructure projects, transit improvements or a mobility pricing scheme.

“I’m kind of glad we have this evidence now so that we’ll have a chance to think about what the options are going forward,” he said. “We have these (mobility management) tools — we have to learn out how to use them better.”

jensaltman@postmedia.com

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