New minister inherits cloud over TransLink

Polak likely to lower tolls, launch Rapid Bus but make no bolder reforms: Price

Langley MLA Mary Polak is B.C.'s new Transportation Minister

Expect new Transportation Minister Mary Polak to offer cut-rate introductory tolls on the new Port Mann Bridge and find a way to launch the stalled express bus service over it from Langley to Burnaby.

That’s the prediction from SFU City Program director Gordon Price after the Langley MLA was named to replace former minister Blair Lekstrom, who joined a flood of retiring BC Liberals.

Price said both already-telegraphed moves would please South of Fraser constituents and said it would be “just too embarrassing” if the government opened the bridge without the promised transit route, despite the construction of dedicated lanes and a giant new park-and-ride.

He expects $2 tolls or maybe even just a loonie for the first year to sweeten the bitter medicine of paid crossings of the Fraser River via the expanded Highway 1.

But Price said he doubts the Liberals and Polak will make any bolder moves ahead of next May’s election to reform TransLink’s funding and allow it to embark on the much broader transit expansion local mayors say is necessary.

“What was once a promising transportation future for Metro Vancouver has turned into an unsatisfying debacle until new leadership emerges,” he said.

Mayors had sought either a vehicle levy, road pricing or other new sources to fund expansion but Premier Christy Clark ruled them all out until after an audit of TransLink finances, due to report soon.

Meanwhile, the hole to fill through cost-cutting has deepened, with TransLink now estimating a $75 million annual shortfall on its current plan.

“I think it’s just a holding position until the election,” he said of Clark’s choice of Polak. “It only puts off any serious talk of funding for Surrey or Broadway rapid transit.”

Those SkyTrain or light rail extensions would cost billions and Price said there’s growing pressure in Vancouver in particular for a UBC line.

New Democrats have given little sign of what they would do with TransLink either, Price said, adding he hopes the agency’s future becomes an election issue.

He said Lekstrom, although overruled by Clark in the debate on new funding, “established a lot of goodwill” with the mayors, despite coming from B.C.’s far northeast.

Langley City Mayor Peter Fassbender, vice-chair of the mayors council, said a change in minister can be disruptive but he has great confidence in Polak, a longtime ally in Langley politics.

“She is very patently aware of the issues South of the Fraser,” he said.

Metro mayors will keep pressing for TransLink governance and funding reforms, he said.

“I don’t think we need to lose a beat in terms of the priorities,” Fassbender said.

“I don’t think the work can afford to wait until the next election.”

The mayors council aims to table its goals for consideration by both the government and opposition parties ahead of the election.