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Experts mull the future of transportation in Metro Vancouver

Vehicles drive out of downtown using the Georgia Street Viaduct adjacent to the Dunsmuir Street Viaduct in Vancouver, B.C., in 2014.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

While Lower Mainland drivers enjoyed their new toll-free rides over two major bridges across the Fraser River this weekend, many transportation observers are trying to map out what will or should happen next with the disappearance of this source of revenue for transportation in the region. Local mayors and transportation experts are anticipating major changes in driving patterns starting this month as drivers can now use the Port Mann and Golden Ears bridges for free.

Financial analysts are assessing what impact the province's announcement that it will take on the debt payments for those bridges will have on British Columbia's credit rating.

Those familiar with the long-term problems that the region has struggled with for almost two decades – as the province, the regional transportation agency TransLink and cities have skirmished over what projects to build and how to fund them – suggest that scrapping the tolls could kickstart new options.

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One is a regional approach to charging drivers for their use of the road system.

"I thought removing the tolls was a dumb idea. But it opens the door to a much more comprehensive mobility-pricing discussion," says Nancy Olewiler, the TransLink board chair for three years from 2011 to 2013.

Ms. Olweiler is also an economics professor at Simon Fraser University. "Let's clean the slate and think about how we want to do this," she said. The other possible option is the creation of a new agency or new governing mechanism to oversee the operation of bridges, tunnels and roads.

"They have to think about all of this in a more comprehensive sense," says Dale Parker, the TransLink board chair from 2008 to 2010. "When you have so many municipalities, you need something that consolidates everything."

Both he and Prof. Olewiler said that having a new agency, or putting all roads, bridges and tunnels under the jurisdiction of TransLink, would help the region make more co-ordinated decisions.

District of North Vancouver Mayor Richard Walton, who was chair of the TransLink mayors' council for many years, says such a move would help eliminate the current confusing situation, in which one entity, the province, makes decisions on its own about big driver-oriented projects such as the proposed 10-lane Massey Bridge to replace the current tunnel under the Fraser River, while another entity, TransLink, works on a priority list of transit projects.

He is hoping that the mobility-pricing commission, created by the mayors' council in June and due to report recommendations by June, 2018, will focus attention on how to create a more co-ordinated approach, possibly through a new agency of the kind that Mr. Parker and Ms. Olewiler favour.

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In the meantime, there are unanswered questions about other transportation projects.

Sources say the province will be making an announcement this coming week about the Massey Bridge, which both the BC NDP and Green parties have opposed in the past. NDP Transportation and Infrastructure Minister Claire Trevena has talked in general terms about a review, but there has been no formal process announced. Before the May election, the Liberal government had requested proposals for the Massey Bridge construction, which produced three submissions, but awarding the contract was delayed until the new government could decide its fate.

"There would be quite a concern if the project was cancelled," said Keith Sashaw, chief executive of the Association of Consulting Engineering Companies of B.C., who said it was been studied extensively and determined to be the best option for replacing the current tunnel.

In the meantime, everyone is waiting to see how traffic patterns will change as the tolls are removed. Mr. Walton said traffic is almost guaranteed to lighten on the Pattullo Bridge between Surrey and New Westminster and possibly on the Alex Fraser Bridge between Surrey and Richmond.

Everyone is keeping a close eye on what the loss of revenue might mean as bond-rating agencies assess B.C.'s finances.

The Port Mann Bridge collected $136-million in tolls in the 2015-16 year. That amount will now to paid through the province's general revenue. As well, the province has made an agreement to pay TransLink $38-million for the missing toll revenue to the end of this fiscal year and up to $25-million for the period from April to September next year.

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For now, bond-rating agencies are taking a wait-and-see approach to the added debt.

"The government's plan, as an isolated action, is credit negative as it will increase taxpayer-supported debt and remove a dedicated line of revenue for debt repayment," Moody's analyst Adam Hardi said in a prepared statement. "However, we assume this action will be taken in addition to other actions to be announced in the upcoming September budget update. Any ratings impact would therefore need to take into account other possible measures that would be announced at that time."

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