Drivers who ring up big bills to cross toll bridges like the Golden Ears (above) could get some of it back through a new tax credit BC Conservative leader John Cummins (right) says would be introduced if his party is elected.

Conservatives dangle tax credit on bridge tolls, ferry fares

Rebate like one for transit will help hard-hit motorists: Cummins

The BC Conservatives are promising to rebate a big chunk of what motorists pay out in tolls or fares if they frequently use BC Ferries or the Port Mann or Golden Ears toll bridges.

Conservative leader John Cummins on Monday pledged to create a new provincial income tax credit that pays out up to $408 per motorist each year if they claim the maximum of $1,800 in tolls each year.

Drivers could also qualify for the same amount on ferry travel by claiming their BC Ferries receipts – just for the vehicles portion, not passenger fares.

The 40 per cent tax credit would only apply on the portion of fares or tolls paid in excess of $780 up to the annual maximum.

Cummins estimated it would cost $45 million a year in foregone tax revenue but his party’s budget forecast has been criticized as overly rosy.

“We certainly think it’s doable,” he said after unveiling the election promise in Surrey.

“It’s there to help people who are unduly burdened by the increase in ferry fares and the tolls, which the average guy is finding pretty difficult to manage.”

Cummins said the tax credit, inspired by the federal tax credit on public transit fares, should encourage more people to use Metro Vancouver’s two toll bridges, potentially boosting the tolls raised from them, as well as the financially struggling BC Ferries system.

Asked if Interior residents might object to government money being spent to provide a benefit mainly to Lower Mainland or Vancouver Island drivers, he said no toll bridges exist elsewhere in the province.

It’s not clear how the Tories would prevent someone from collecting ferry receipts from other travellers, particularly out-of-province tourists, and claiming the fares as their own.

“Obviously there’s going to have to be some cautions built into that,” Cummins responded. “I don’t expect that there’d be widespread fraud. It’s not the practice of Canadians to do that.”

Cummins said it’s possible but unlikely that a driver could qualify for the maximum $408 credit on both ferry and toll bridge use, earning a rebate of $816.

Truckers wouldn’t initially be able to claim the toll, but Cummins wants to do so by 2015, although he was unable to provide details.

He noted truckers are diverting to the untolled Pattullo Bridge to avoid paying tolls at the Port Mann.

Another Conservative policy plank aimed at appealing to driver anger would repeal B.C.’s carbon tax. Cummins said that would translate into about $200 per year in relief for the typical motorist.

Canadian Taxpayers Federation B.C. director Jordan Bateman applauded the party for making bridge tolls an election issue.

But he said it’s not clear to him how many drivers would benefit from the credit since they have to spend at least $760 each year in tolls or fares to qualify.

And he questioned the Tories’ reliance on a high economic growth rate to generate more revenue.

“At least they’re putting the high fees on the agenda,” Bateman said. “The diagnosis is correct. I’m just not sure if the medicine will actually cure the problem.”

Transportation Minister Mary Polak called the Conservatives’ tax credit proposal “completely unaffordable in terms of their budget.”

She said it also runs contrary to the government’s position that money for TransLink must be raised within the region, not siphoned from provincial taxes that should help fund priorities elsewhere.

“I have a great deal of curiosity as to how his candidates running in other areas of the province feel about the province providing provincial resources to offset the cost for people who are commuting in Metro Vancouver.”