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Opinion Eliminating tolls might be a bridge too far for B.C. taxpayers

Stephen Quinn is the host of On the Coast on CBC Radio One, 690 AM and 88.1 FM in Vancouver.

First off, there is the timing. In government, Fridays are usually reserved for bad-news announcements that will, hopefully, fade away over the weekend. Really bad news is relegated to late Friday afternoon, when, again hopefully, coverage will be minimal.

So Premier John Horgan and the BC NDP announcing on Friday that the tolls on the Port Mann and Golden Ears bridges will be eliminated as of Sept. 1 is a curious thing.

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It is, after all, great news for those who have to travel over either bridge on a daily basis. The government estimates it will save daily car commuters $1,500 a year and commercial drivers up to $4,500 a year. That's real money back in the pockets of hard-working British Columbians. I lost track of the number of times Mr. Horgan said eliminating the tolls will "make life more affordable for B.C. families" during the announcement. He said it a lot. But for people who live south of the Fraser – the only people in the province expected to pay tolls – it's a good day.

Read more: B.C.'s New Democrats eliminate tolls on Vancouver-region bridges

It's also a good day to take the focus off the fact that a party that railed against "cash for access" fundraisers continues to line its pockets with corporate and union donations, most recently on Thursday with a $500-a-head golf tournament – literally, pay to play. Yes, it has been a long-standing event, and yes, it was scheduled some time ago. And don't worry, getting rid of that filthy corporate and union money will be the first order of business when the Legislature is reconvened. Until then, the NDP, as the Premier has said so many times, is "playing by the rules."

All of that aside, getting rid of the tolls on the Port Mann Bridge alone will transfer more than $4-billion in debt from the bridge to taxpayer-supported debt. Green Party Leader Andrew Weaver immediately criticized the decision as "high cost and low impact," and said the money would be better spent on "high return on investment decisions," for instance, child care, student housing and education. "It is disappointing that the first major measure that this government has taken to make life more affordable for British Columbians will add billions of dollars to taxpayer-supported debt," he said in a statement.

More than that, though, Mr. Weaver said that tolls are an excellent policy tool to manage transportation demand, which is true when they're fairly applied and when alternatives to driving are readily accessible and reliable. "Transport-demand management reduces pollution and emissions, alleviates congestion and helps pay for costly infrastructure. That's why, at the negotiating table when preparing our Confidence and Supply Agreement, we ensured that a commitment was included to work with the Mayors' Council consultation process to find a more fair and equitable way of funding transit in the long term," he said.

That work is, we're told, going on right now with the Metro Vancouver Mobility Pricing Independent Commission, which was created earlier this year. It has been tasked with, according to its terms of reference, "evaluating the viability and acceptability of potential regional-road use charging alternatives for motor vehicles." In the end it is to come up with recommendations on how to implement a co-ordinated regional-road usage charge. In short, you'll pay for every kilometre you drive.

Putting such a system in place will, no doubt, be one of the largest and most complex undertakings in the history of Metro Vancouver transportation. Think about it – transponders in every car, monitors and cameras at key points on bridges and roads throughout the region, a billing system with charges that are fair and equitable, and perhaps the biggest hurdle – convincing the public to accept it.

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Other cities have similar systems in place but here we'd be starting from scratch. I would guess that we're at least a decade away from any such thing becoming a reality.

In the meantime, where are we? We have two bridges – both built and financed with the understanding that they would be paid for by tolls, now declared toll-free. We have a 10-year, $7.5-billion Metro Vancouver transportation plan with no sustainable way of financing it in the long term. We have billions of dollars in debt that now belongs to all B.C. taxpayers. And we have taken a step backward on reducing greenhouse-gas emissions.

I don't know, maybe Premier Horgan was right in saving this announcement for a Friday.

While it is certainly welcome news to those who will no longer have to pay the tolls, there's not much in it for the rest of us.

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