Surrey-Cloverdale MLA Kevin Falcon

Falcon’s bridge a lasting legacy, but tolls ‘haunt’ Liberals

Surrey MLA drove Port Mann freeway expansion, revamped TransLink

The decision to build – and toll – the new Port Mann Bridge will stand as Kevin Falcon’s most tangible legacy for Metro Vancouverites, observers say.

The $3.3-billion Port Mann/Highway 1 improvement project will open in December without the resigning finance minister in cabinet or seeking re-election.

Falcon spearheaded the project as transportation minister, saying it was critical to ease all-day congestion on the freeway and aid goods movement through the growing port.

But he also championed the controversial tolls, citing a slim majority of the public who backed them in consultations, as well as the need to pay for the project and keep the 10-lane bridge from quickly recongesting with induced traffic.

“People were so desperate to get that bridge going I think there was a majority of people who would have signed on for anything South of the Fraser,” said the Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation’s Jordan Bateman, who argues motorists pay too much in gas tax already and opposes Port Mann tolls.

“I suspect they would have liked to have that decision back,” he said. “I think the tolling is going to come back to haunt them politically.”

Surrey residents are increasingly angry all three Fraser River crossings into their city may end up tolled if the Pattullo Bridge is also rebuilt with tolls.

And there’s growing fear on both sides of the river – based on the Golden Ears Bridge experience – that congestion will worsen on other routes through Surrey, Burnaby and New Westminster as many drivers avoid paying tolls.

Bateman said the Liberals should have tolled the Sea-to-Sky Highway after its $600-million upgrade, with some protection for Squamish and Whistler residents.

Bateman also said Falcon’s decision to scrap the elected TransLink board in 2008 and replace it with a governance model headed by unelected professional directors has failed to produce better results.

“It’s probably another piece of his legacy he’d like to have back,” he said.

SFU City Program director Gordon Price, who has long criticized the Port Mann project as one that will fuel car use and suburban sprawl when much improved transit could have been built instead, nevertheless called it a “magnificent” achievement.

“There’s no question the bridge is spectacular, a generational icon,” he said. “He’ll be able to bask in glory over the Port Mann, as much as I think it was a misallocation of resources.”

The Port Mann project was originally to be a twinned bridge, at a cost of $1.5 billion, but was redrawn as one 10-lane bridge on the advice of the P3 private partners and then the province had to step in and take over the financing amid the global financial crisis when the financiers pulled out. (The actual bridge and highway capital cost is $2.46 billion; $3.3 billion includes the operation, maintenance and financing costs over 45 years.)

The piecemeal tolling of local bridges has led area mayors to propose regional tolling or road pricing reforms and Price hopes the completion of Falcon’s highway expansion mega-projects will let the region refocus on rapid transit expansion and how to pay for it.

Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan, a longtime Falcon foe, said unintended consequences of tolling are one symptom of what he called Falcon’s penchant for “back-of-the-envelope” decision making where he ordered costly initiatives without enough supporting evidence or a clear-eyed look at alternatives.

Another example, he said, was Falcon’s directive, after a trip to London, that TransLink install faregates at a huge cost compared to the unpaid fares that might be captured.

“There are so many things we could have done with the money,” he said.

Dumping local politicians from the TransLink board was purely an “act of revenge” over their hesitation to build the Canada Line ahead of earlier promises to first extend rapid transit to the Tri Cities.

“Kevin Falcon’s legacy is the idea that government is all about politics,” Corrigan said. “I disagree with that. Government is all about planning, strategy and doing the right thing.”

Despite Falcon’s departure from provincial politics to be closer to his young and growing family, nobody is betting against an eventual comeback.

“It’s too early to retire his jersey number,” Bateman said.