Tolls far short of costs as drivers shun Golden Ears Bridge

Golden Ears subsidy $33 million this year even with predicted jump in traffic.

The Golden Ears Bridge so far isn't attracting as many users and tolls as expected.

TransLink is counting on a 26-per-cent jump in the number of motorists who will pay to use the Golden Ears Bridge this year but the costs of the bridge will continue to far outstrip the tolls coming in.

Even with the rosier traffic forecast, the transportation authority will still pay out $33 million more than it receives in tolls for the Fraser River crossing connecting Surrey and Langley to Pitt Meadows and Maple Ridge.

“We knew for the first few years we would be subsidizing it,” TransLink spokesman Ken Hardie said. “But we are subsidizing it more than expected because traffic volumes have not increased to the levels we thought they were going to be.”

TransLink’s budget calls for toll revenue to climb to $37.8 million from $30 million in 2010, the bridge’s first full year of operations.

It gives no rationale for the projected increase when large numbers of motorists continue to refuse to take the tolled crossing.

Even if the number of users rise as fast as hoped, TransLink will remain far short of covering its $71.1 million in costs for 2011 – which consist of a $46.4-million capital payment to the bridge’s private contractor, the $11.9-million operating payment to the contractor and $12.7 million in debt servicing.

Hardie denied the current shortfall represents any risk to taxpayers.

Other projects are under budget and TransLink can absorb the extra bridge subsidy until revenues improve, he said.

“We’re not looking at raising fares or taxes or anything else as a result of the Golden Ears Bridge performance,” he said, adding project is only 18 months into a 30-year contract.

“The cost of the bridge will over time be covered by tolls.”

This year’s shortfall will bring TransLink’s cumulative deficit on funding the new bridge to $63.8 million for the first three years.

The payments to the private partner continue escalating each year until they peak in 2014.

But TransLink expects the revenue picture will change significantly for the Golden Ears Bridge in 2013, when tolls kick in on the new 10-lane Port Mann Bridge and it no longer offers an easy free alternative.

“People will make their choice of which bridge to use based on the efficiency of the trip – the time it takes to get where they’re going,” Hardie said.

TransLink also plans a new initiative this year to drum up more Golden Ears users, in part by marketing the time-saving benefits to drivers, especially commercial truckers, who now detour via the Port Mann to avoid the toll.

About 25,000 vehicles a day cross the Golden Ears Bridge, while five times as many use the Port Mann.

Asked whether changes could include adjustments in the toll charged or the adoption of variable time-of-day tolling to attract more users, Hardie said everything is on the table but added it’s too early to provide details.

Base tolls for regular cars with transponders now pay $2.80 ($3.35 or $3.95 for those who don’t have transponders or aren’t registered at all) and that is expected to rise for inflation again this summer.

Unlike other major bridges – including the new Port Mann where the province has opted to borrow the money directly and taxpayers are already shouldering significant costs – a private partner financed and built the $808-million Golden Ears Bridge and will operate and maintain it for 30 years.

There is no federal or provincial money in the bridge, Hardie said.

He also noted the previous costs of operating the former Albion ferries has been used to keep the Golden Ears tolls lower than would otherwise be required.

TransLink still has not sold the two ferries hauled up on the bank of the Fraser although there is one prospective deal in the works.

“We’ve been so close a few times,” Hardie said, adding one deal that fell through would have sent the ferries to South Africa.

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