For a while it looked as if the New Democrat who may be B.C.’s next transportation minister if his party takes power would steer clear of the new Port Mann Bridge – the province’s biggest infrastructure project.
Opposition transportation critic Harry Bains, MLA for Surrey-Newton, told Black Press last week he didn’t intend to register with the TReO tolling system because he had little cause to use the Port Mann. Most of his duties keep him south of the Fraser or taking SkyTrain to Vancouver, rather than visiting the Tri Cities.
But as his constituents clamoured to register before opening day to get a $30 credit – pushing registrations above the half-million mark – Bains had a change of heart and signed up as well.
“I finally registered and I’m going to go take a trip,” Bains said Tuesday. “Since it’s free this week, I’ll go take a look.”
The NDP’s critic still has plenty of concerns, notably the expected congestion at the Pattullo Bridge and crossings further south as motorists seek a free alternative.
He also contends the new #555 Port Mann bus service may not have enough capacity to meet demand.
But his views on other transportation issues in the Lower Mainland are not far off those of B.C. Transportation Minister Mary Polak.
Bains insists the tolls introduced by the province on the Port Mann are here to stay, rising to $3 next December when introductory discounts end.
And like Polak, he’s prepared to listen to Metro Vancouver mayors who want to pursue road pricing and other new revenue sources to fund TransLink and address complaints of unfair tolling.
He’s just as cautious as the minister, stressing any controversial new scheme to extend tolls to existing bridges or roads must win public support.
Bains dismisses the province’s announcement of plans to replace the Massey Tunnel as a vague and unfunded “electioneering” ploy.
But he wouldn’t call off the consultation and planning process if the NDP is elected next spring, agreeing the tunnel is a key Lower Mainland choke point.
“There is a need to have that crossing improved,” he said. “It is a main trading corridor to the United States. You can’t afford to have trucks lined up in that area.”
Tolls on the Port Mann and perhaps later a replaced Pattullo Bridge may mean even more traffic trying to use the tunnel, he noted.
Bains said government must also be mindful the Lower Mainland will grow by another million people, most of them settling south of the Fraser.
“You have to look ahead and say ‘how are we going to move those people and the goods that are going to serve them south of the Fraser?’ “
A replaced tunnel could also be a source of new jobs and economic growth in Surrey and North Delta, he said, allowing larger container ships now limited by draft to head further up river to the under-utilized Fraser Surrey Docks, instead of Vancouver terminals.
“If we have an opportunity to move those containers closer to their destination, can you imagine all the trucks you will be removing off Vancouver streets and off those crossings of the river?”
Whether the tunnel must be replaced or can be fixed instead would depend on further engineering advice, he said.
The big challenge for the next government, he said, will be juggling priorities in the face of limited resources.
Besides the need to replace two Fraser River crossings, there’s multi-billion-dollar demands for new rapid transit extensions in Surrey and down the Broadway corridor in Vancouver toward UBC.
There’s a need to upgrade SkyTrain stations and boost bus service throughout the region.
Better transit has to be the top priority, he said, along with TransLink’s need for long-term sustainable funding.
The NDP promises to raise corporate taxes – cut to offset the carbon tax – back to 2008 levels.
That would free up about $400 million a year for provincial transportation projects, Bains said.
Government would earmark a portion of that for the Lower Mainland, while area mayors would be expected to agree on how they will raise more money from residents.
“I’m willing to sit down with them and look at all options.”