February 8, 2014

Dude, Where are my Toll-Paying Cars? – Port Mann joins the watch list

Less than a month ago, PT was wondering whether the Port Mann would be joining the growing list of toll roads, bridges and tunnels that are failing (sometimes dramatically) to meet their projections – and hence the financial premise on which they were constructed (and in Port Mann’s case, overbuilt).

It’s not looking good.

6,000 fewer cars per day using Port Mann Bridge since tolls.  20-per-cent shortfall in revenue anticipated

The new Port Mann Bridge is expected to see a 20-per-cent shortfall in anticipated revenues in each of the next three years as drivers increasingly flee to the Pattullo Bridge to avoid the $3 toll. …

That means 6,000 fewer cars per day are using the Port Mann Bridge compared with the traffic before an initial $1.50 toll was introduced in December 2012. …

The lower traffic estimates for the Port Mann have prompted Ti Corp. to revise its revenue estimates for the next three years to $144 million for 2014, $159 million in 2015 and $174 million in 2016 — about 20 per cent less than previously anticipated.

The spin machine shifted into gear:

The provincial government and TI Corp. on Friday downplayed the trends on the Port Mann as temporary, saying they had expected traffic numbers to drop on the bridge once the full toll was implemented on Jan. 1.

Transportation Minister Todd Stone … noted that when Florida and Texas increased tolls in 2012 and 2013, the diversion ranged between three and seven per cent as drivers immediately tried alternate routes. Within three months, though, traffic had returned to pre-increase levels.

The obvious question is: If you thought that was going to happen, why didn’t you include it in your projections?

The Minister blames … better transit.

Transportation Minister Todd Stone blamed high gas prices, improved public transit and more people working from home as affecting traffic on the route, but insists TI Corp. is still on track to pay off the project ahead of the 2050 schedule.

That’s where the alarm bell should go off.  How can this be?  A 20 percent decline – but everything is still on track to pay for the bridge?  Most likely, they’re assuming traffic will be rebound to meet their projections.  Indeed, the Minister said as much:

“There is no question that on the Port Mann Bridge, the overall traffic volumes are down somewhat year over year,” Stone said in Vancouver on Friday. “But what we expect is that those numbers will bounce back as people really sort it out, and determine how much is their time worth?”

There’s another scenario, based more on reality than expectation:

… that hasn’t appeared to have happened with the Golden Ears Bridge, which is only now starting to see the same levels of traffic that it received in its first month — when it was free to use. That bridge, also owned by TransLink, is costing the transportation authority $40 million annually because the traffic numbers are not what were originally anticipated.

Meanwhile, the future of transportation infrastructure that has consistently exceeded expectations for demand, and been consistently underbuilt to meet it – notably the Canada Line – is being put up for a risky vote, while the Motordom machine continues to rev up.  The demand for bigger bridges is as strong as ever:

(Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts) said regardless of the traffic patterns, TransLink should be moving ahead with a new Pattullo crossing. The project has long been on TransLink’s list of priorities, but Surrey and New Westminster have struggled to agree on what to do — Surrey wants a new six-lane crossing, while New Westminster would prefer to see the bridge rehabilitated and a new crossing built between Surrey and Coquitlam.

You can bet the commitment to a 10-lane Massey Crossing remains in place.  Not for a moment, I’d bet, would the government entertain the idea of placing a toll on the existing tunnel and using the revenues to boost transit, both reducing congestion and offering an alternative, while saving $2 to $3 billion for another overbuilt bridge.

They have learned nothing.

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  1. It is shocking that Surrey is still pushing for a 6 lane bridge yet they are complaining about high tolls and no money for transit. People need to realize that overbuilt bridges are expensive for taxpayers and drivers while taking funding away from badly needed transit projects.

    The obvious solution is to build smaller bridges and save money now. If in the future, more capacity is needed, which is unlikely, build another small bridge. The money saved in the meantime would likely even be enough to pay for it.

    1. A six lane bridge seems undersized to me for the anticipated growth in Surrey. We need road and public transit infrastructure investment. Trucks with goods destined to/from ships, container terminals, Okanagan or Alberta and beyond don’t move on LRT, and there is no alternatives to cars once you leave MetroVancouver heading east, north or south !

      Even if electric and smaller like in Europe, cars and truck will be with us for 100+ years.

      With 50% population growth in Lower Mainland over the next 30+ years surely we need wider roads and public transit investment.

    1. Agreed.

      Translink did the study. LRT didn’t score well. But everyone just seems to ignore that.

      Is no one disturbed that LRT in Surrey would be a *negative* net present value project? That’s really not good. RRT is positive NPV. We should build that if we are rational.

    1. Building a new bridge doesn’t magically improve shipping draught. That would require the removal of the old tunnel, something every engineer who has commented on the plan says is impractical.

      1. Do you have a link on this? Removal of the tunnel will cost money of course, but in my non-expert eyes i see no other reason why it can’t be done. Dredging to the surrey docks happens currently anyway.

        a deas island bridge will also allow for oversized loads and dangerous goods to be transported over the crossing.


  2. A somewhat misleading title, as the answer to the problem of the missing traffic is contained in your first quote.

    We are a people who will cross an international border to save a couple bucks on cheese. It was obvious that such a thrifty folk would use an adjacent free bridge over a toll alternative. Translink should either replace the Patullo posthaste and toll it, or demoilish it altogether.

      1. TransLink is expressly forbidden from collecting any revenue from provincial highway infrastructure.

        Thus a region-wide tolling program is impossible unless instituted by the Ministry of Transportation on their infrastructure and separately instituted by TransLink on theirs. The fact that a single ID can be used to cross both the Port Mann and Golden Ears makes the concept plausible, but I don’t think the Ministry has the stomach for more toll bridges.

  3. The really sad thing is that the 6000 fewer vehicles a day would have helped to reduce the congestion problem that the original bridge had. We could probably have avoided the need to build a new bridge altogether by simply slapping a $5 toll on the old bridge with the promise that it would be used to fund a replacement when it reached end of life. That way we’d (a) have avoided the huge up-front capital investment and associated financing charges needed, and (b) gotten stats on what actual traffic volumes would be so as to plan an appropriately sized replacement instead of the wild-a##ed guesses that pass for traffic prediction these days.

    It would have been a really hard sell, but the right thing to do.

    Maybe its not too late to do that with the Patullo and Massey crossings…

    1. …and just leave it to New Westminster to figure out how to contend with an extra 20,000 vehicles a day.


      Toll the Patullo and they’ll all shift over to the Alex Fraser.

      Toll the Massey $5 a pop and a substantial number will scurry over to the Alex Fraser too.

      A perfect recipe for popular citizen support. They will cheer you!

      1. If you toll them all then some will certainly shift to transit, especially if you used the money saved by cutting back on the width of all these new bridges to provide better transit service…

  4. Gordon; I’m sure you read the Vancouver Sun and saw these numbers.
    “before the tolls came into effect — 65,483 drivers crossed the Pattullo, according to TransLink. …An average 85,000 vehicles per day now cross the Pattullo, …”

    There are your missing 6,000. They even throw in an extra 14,000 just to make sure.


    The Port Mann may not be overbuilt at all. It’s at least a hell of a lot better than the silly little job that was done in 2000 on the Lion’s Gate. That merely ensured that traffic would be backed up belching fumes along Georgia Street and at the bottom of Taylor Way for most of every work day and many weekend days too. Yes, I’m sure that twenty or maybe even thirty people have given up and now, either take transit or cycle across the bridge. The remaining thousands haven’t.

    The previous backups to cross the Port Mann, on both approaches, was substantial, frustrating and bad for the planet because of the the emissions belching from vehicles idling or crawling. There was also no transit across it. Many drivers that have to pay the extraordinary Lower Mainland tax on gasoline (for transit!) are understandably now diverting to the alternate because this is human nature.

    Can anyone seriously support the contention that the half century old Massey Tunnel is sufficient, with its afternoon six lanes from the south feeding into one single lane? More frustration, more pollution, more missed connections, more expense for travellers through this ancient relic. The idea that travellers from the ferry terminal and the USA, as well as the commercial traffic, etc., should perhaps pay a toll (for transit!) on top of having to feed through the present silly little tunnel at a snails pace is preposterous.

    The idea that it’s right to put the squeeze on drivers to finance transit is offensive and elitist. It assumes that these drivers are doing something wrong and therefore should be gently punished so as to coax them towards taking transit instead of driving.

    Many drivers simply cannot take transit. Even in other cities where transit is a glorious efficient dream, drivers of business and commercial vehicles, as well as the vans, trucks and others of service industry and the trades people have to drive on roads and across bridges to get around.

    It often seems as though many commentators pushing for vehicle drivers to pay for cycle infrastructure and for transit and for a cessation in any improvement or expansion of the roads network, live entirely in the centre city region and just about never get to to actually experience the traffic jams that exist daily in the Lower Mainland.

    That elite bicycle cohort of curmudgeons from the inner city resort community.

    Go pick on someone else. Sure, expand the subway system, many of us drivers love efficient subways. We travel on the BART, we love le Métropolitain, we know how to run up the escalators on the Tube, we’ve willingly squeezed into Tokyo cars and used our mobiles on the Hong Kong system, etc. We’re not against expanded transit but asking drivers to pay for transit is too much like the fisherman asking the beef farmer to buy him a new boat!

    1. “Even in other cities where transit is a glorious efficient dream, drivers of business and commercial vehicles, as well as the vans, trucks and others of service industry and the trades people have to drive on roads and across bridges to get around.”

      No subsidies for business, ample subsidies for individuals. If you’re driving to a job, you’ll happily and rationally pay a toll for an efficient crossing.

    2. If I’m reading you right, you seem to think that the bridge tolls go to transit. You’re wrong. The tolls go to the financing costs for the bridge. And then some. The Golden Ears ‘loses’ tens of millions of dollars a year. Arguably, transit users subsidize cars crossing that bridge.

  5. “The idea that it’s right to put the squeeze on drivers to finance transit is offensive and elitist.”

    Elitist! I love it! Obviously financing, fueling and paying insurance on a rapidly depreciating machine is the behavior of societies’ downtrodden! Classic!

    1. The elitist part is not the fact that they drive the car. Where elitist comment comes into place is that you have priced people out of Vancouver and Burnaby through irresponsible pro-development and real-estate speculation policies masked today as “eco-density” (feds also play a big role through their CHMC) and essentially forced them to live in the deep burbs and drive cars if they want to get a decent job. Then you treat them like scum for having to drive and for objecting to paying tolls. Instead of squeezing further your “future” (you know, people in suburbs with actual kids that you will need one day to pay retirement and hospital bills for all those hipster childless couples and singles living in downtown shoeboxes) how about we finance transit for the suburbs using real estate transaction taxes with punitive taxes on flipping…Then when people in suburbs have reasonable option for using transit (as in, not spending 3 hours a day commuting) we should crank up the tolls on the bridges and even introduce road pricing, Then I would call that fair and not elitist.

      1. Economic double think:

        Increasing housing supply increases housing prices?

        See? This issue is toxic because it’s a culture war. Between the hipster childless couples living in shoeboxes and the down to earth suburbanites.

        It’s not about solving problems, it’s about fighting against a culture that threatens you. Both sides are guilty of that.

        Some people want to punish cars because they just don’t like them and the culture they create (guilty), and some people want to punish transit and density and shoeboxes and craft beer and bicycles for equal but opposite reasons.

      2. Spank – increasing housing supply is a lie… You have 4-5 big developers in the city that are NEVER going to oversupply because they are not stupid. They create more condos or up-zoned properties slowly just matching the demand thus never creating oversupply. When there is no oversupply there is no chances for prices to go down. Why else do you think Concord-Pacific for example is sitting on empty lots for decades (while incidentally paying next to nothing in property taxes)?

        The only way to stop this cycle is to:

        a) not have 30-40K people coming here
        b) have economic crash

        First one is not going to happen any time soon (especially given they we are essentially the easiest country in the world to get citizenship with about zero criminal or financial background checks) and second one you really do not want anyway. Vancouver proper has essentially become Canadian version of Monaco…

      3. People are ‘priced out’ of Vancouver because it’s pleasant. And it’s not about the seaside.

        The rest of Metro Vancouver could be pleasant too – I’m talking Kitsilanos, not towers – if those municipalities weren’t so car-centric in their spending and designs.

        The best thing for both City of Vancouver and the region would be to be truly multi-nodal. Instead the rest of Metro Vancouver leaches off Vancouver’s good design, and workers are forced into long commutes to the jobs hub, whether by car or transit.

      4. The way to “stop the cycle” is for other Metro Vancouver munis to offer a better (or even comparable) quality of urbanism than/to Kitsilano. Walking to the store, gentle density, appropriately sized, people-first streets.

        All I see are distinct blobs of single family, multi-family and towers. Where’s a transit-connected neighborhood square?

  6. Driving a car is a luxury and always has been. With increasing populations in the city, and the increasing costs of road and bridge construction, if you want to continue to drive, you are going to have to pay increasingly more for that luxury. If you don’t want to pay more, you are going to have to opt out (drive less, stay off toll bridges, and use public transit). It is just that simple, people. For those who can, work more from home to reduce commuting. Our lifestyles are changing and are going to continue to change in response to our evolving/devolving environment; protesting, griping, and nickle and diming are fruitless.

  7. Tolling existing bridges would certainly raise a lot of money and stop the rat running around the tolled routes. It would also be a one way trip to political purgatory for the politician that decided to champion it. Drivers are still the majority so when one comes up with proposals that you hope to actually see come to life one should consider throwing them a bone.

    And don’t worry, once the Putello and George Massy tolls (and their new bridges, aka the bone) are in place there won’t really be capacity on the Alex Fraser to allow that many people to dodge the toll line, and before you know it you might just be able to build an interchange to justify a toll on the Alex Fraser.

    Incidentily, while no surprise that New West would rather the new Putello go to Coquitlam (I will agree if New West pays the entire bill to do so) it would be nice to see some comprimise and put in two smaller bridges (one to New West, one to Coquitlam) that both had tolls so that no one would have to shortcut through anyone elses towns as their would be direct routes and no cost savings at all to shortcut.

    But of course, having even more bridges, well, that’s just crazy talk! Keep fighting for transit you have no money for, and keep watching as the silent majority keeps on pushing for roads. Then, come next provincial election, we can see what improvements to the Alex Fraser are planned, and all the toll money can go to general revenue.

  8. Oh my goodness! Incredible article dude!

    Thank you so much, However I am encountering issues with your RSS.
    I don’t understand why I am unable to subscribe to it.
    Is there anybody else getting similar RSS issues?
    Anybody who knows the answer can you kindly respond?