Drivers will pay $1.50 to cross the new Port Mann Bridge (right) when  tolls are put into place at the beginning of December, the province announced on Wednesday.  The introductory rate will last for three months  but those who register for a tolling account are guaranteed half price tolls for the first year, Langley MLA and new Transporation Minister Mary Polak announced on Wednesday.

Drivers will pay $1.50 to cross the new Port Mann Bridge (right) when tolls are put into place at the beginning of December, the province announced on Wednesday. The introductory rate will last for three months but those who register for a tolling account are guaranteed half price tolls for the first year, Langley MLA and new Transporation Minister Mary Polak announced on Wednesday.

Tolls likely to lead to congestion

Overcrowded bridges on Monday provided a glimpse of what may become more common when the tolls go into effect.

Tolls on the Port Mann Bridge will be lower, for between three months to a year, depending on whether residents sign up to be part of the tolling program. This is good news for Langley residents who plan to use the bridge regularly.

The ability to purchase monthly passes is also good news, as that will most definitely save money for heavy bridge users.

Transportation Minister Mary Polak, in her first week on the job, had to deal with this very major issue of toll prices. This issue is of wide interest and deep concern to many Langley residents, and will definitely be an election issue next May.

The BC Liberals may get a few more votes with a reduced toll, but it is unlikely that the introductory price on tolls will give them enough votes to win some of the ridings they now hold, as long as the BC Conservatives are in the hunt.

A glimpse of what may become more common when the tolls go into effect came Monday morning, when a delay in stopping overnight work on the highway improvement project had westbound traffic reduced to just one lane near the bridge. This lasted until almost 8 a.m.

Traffic reporters stated that it took two hours to get between 192 Street and the bridge, and almost every other Fraser River crossing was plugged solid with vehicles seeking to avoid the Port Mann. Curiously enough, the (tolled) Golden Ears Bridge wasn’t.

Once tolls are no longer discounted, will that be the norm every day? Will most drivers avoid the new bridge and plug the others? What will happen to traffic patterns?

One thing is for sure, the Pattullo and Alex Fraser bridges, the two most likely “free” alternatives, can’t take a great deal more traffic in the morning and evening rush hours. If transit service on the Port Mann isn’t sufficient to get a lot of drivers out of their cars, there’s a good chance that those two bridges will be perpetually plugged.

NDP transportation critic Harry Bains said the tolls are a sure thing, even if his party wins, because of a contract the provincial government has signed. But any contract can be re-negotiated and changed, at a price. The question voters need to ask NDP candidates is this — are they willing to look into the possibility of taking the tolls off the new bridge?

My guess is no, because the provincial government, no matter what its stripe, badly needs money. The latest projections have it running a $1 billion deficit, largely due to low natural gas prices.

Thus all unpopular taxes and tolls, such as the property purchase tax, BC Hydro and ICBC dividends, MSP premiums, bridge tolls, carbon tax and others are almost certain to stay in place, no matter who forms government.

It will be up to residents to find their own way out of this morass, because nobody at the government level seems very understanding of the real challenges that most families have in balancing income and expenditures each month. Port Mann tolls, even with a monthly pass, may be the straw that finally breaks many peoples’ backs.