Toll discounts to be tested on Golden Ears Bridge

Variable tolls will be tested on the Golden Ears Bridge to try and increase usage.

Variable tolls will be tested on the Golden Ears Bridge to try and increase usage.

Evening and weekend crossings of the Golden Ears Bridge will be a bargain for six weeks as TransLink tweaks its toll structure.

Instead of paying $2.80 per crossing, motorists with transponders will only pay $1.95 if they make the crossing after 7 p.m. Friday, as well as Saturdays and Sundays. The discount rate also applies weeknights from 7 p.m. to 6 a.m.

The goal is to see if lower rates can persuade motorists to rejig their schedules, something that could be useful in future tolling projects, and to see if it can attract people who would normally use the Port Mann Bridge.

TransLink is also trying to boost use of the bridge as the number of crossings falls below expectations. Average daily use is about 25,000 trips, whereas projections from 2004 called for between 30,000 and 40,000 crossings every day.

TransLink spokesman Ken Hardie said the effects of the 2008 recession, which reduced commercial hauling across the bridge, and lower-than-expected new development on the north side of the Fraser River have cut into bridge numbers.

Tough economic times also affect the number of people who jump into their cars and go shopping or out for entertainment, he added.

“People just don’t travel as much when times are tough.”

The public-private-partnership model under which the bridge was built calls for TransLink to make yearly payments to the Golden Crossing General Partnership for its construction and operation.

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.

But it will have to pay $71 million this year for debt servicing and contractor payments. Hardie said previously that TransLink can absorb the $30-million-plus shortfall and that the variable tolling is one of the strategies expected to increase use and prevent having to cut other programs to make the bridge payments.

Rising gasoline prices and the opening of the new Port Mann Bridge, which will have tolls, in 2012 are also expected to increase use of the Golden Ears Bridge.

Maple Ridge Mayor Ernie Daykin, though, admits, “I thought it [the bridge] would have had a more immediate impact.”

Some people are still using the Port Mann to get to Surrey, driving 40 to 50 minutes to do that, he added.

Delta Mayor Lois Jackson has her concerns about the Golden Ears Bridge usage. “I question the numbers and the amount of expenditures that they made and the number of people using it. I think we do have to look at the numbers now that it’s completed.

“It is troubling that people weren’t using it at a very high rate over this period of time.”

She said she still supports, in principle, transportation projects, such as the Evergreen SkyTrain line in the northeast sector (Maple Ridge to Port Moody), but said the growth is on the south side of the Fraser RIver.

She wants Lower Mainland mayors to consider light rail on lines already existing in the Fraser Valley that could connect Chilliwack to Surrey, but said nobody seems to want to talk about it.

Road networks are already in place for such a system, she pointed out.

“I think it really does bear much more analysis by the mayors because we’re the ones carrying the can as far as property tax is concerned. I don’t feel good for the future of the local taxpayer.”

The Golden Ears Bridge trial period of 30-per-cent discounted fares starts April 15 and includes both Easter and May long weekends. A motorist without a transponder will pay only $2.75 during the off-peak hours, compared to $3.95 during regular hours.

Daykin said he continues to lobby TransLink to fund a study on expanding the West Coast Express service to and from Vancouver beyond its five rush-hour trips each weekday morning and evening.

Local mayors asked for that last year, after the Winter Olympics, but were rejected by TransLink.

– with files from Jeff Nagel