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Will Gateway really work -- and at what cost?

Don Cayo  Vancouver Sun,
Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Transportation Minister Kevin Falcon gave up most of his speaking time at the B.C. Chamber of Commerce Transportation Summit on Tuesday so his boss, Premier Gordon Campbell, could use it to announce the much-leaked, $3-billion Gateway strategy.

But Falcon got himself invited back for a short spot on the speakers' roster, and he used it to try to firm up political support for what he knows will be a spat over whether the project is really needed, well-planned, properly financed, etc., etc., etc.

"Any time you try to do anything, especially in the Lower Mainland, there will be people who will oppose it," Falcon said. And he urged Chamber members -- most of them excited at the prospect of such huge spending to get people and goods moving more quickly -- to join his government in defending it.

NDP transportation critic David Chudnovsky, who attended the summit, is already on record as being highly skeptical about the financing. But on other aspects of the project he is, for now at least, asking questions rather than decrying it. For example, will this project actually reduce congestion, as opposed to simply fostering new demand that will soon clog the new and wider roads and bridges?

The government has not yet released any of its technical information, and I look forward to seeing how well this is addressed. It seems to me to be the key to whether this project deserves support or not.

In the meantime, both Campbell and Falcon say their plan includes "demand management" -- deliberate steps to slow the rate of growth in the number of cars and trucks on the road. They expect two things to do this -- a proposal to put a $2.50 toll on the twinned Port Mann Bridge, and the reintroduction of public transit linking the north and south sides of the Fraser. That link was broken 10 years ago when traffic jams became so bad that schedules couldn't be maintained.

Without these measures, Campbell and Falcon say, traffic growth would overwhelm the increased capacity of the road system in as little as five years. But with the tolls and transit it's likely to be 25 years before congestion rebuilds to high levels.

I'm interested in seeing the studies that back this claim. I'd like to have the confidence that the proposed $2.50 toll hasn't been set at an arbitrary level, but rather at a rate that can be expected to produce specific traffic-management results. I'd like to know what plans, if any, are in the offing to cut the rate during off-hours to encourage more use when the road system has oodles of unused capacity.

I'm also concerned, however, that the premier and the minister are presenting the tolling plan only as an option, subject to public consultation.

What happens, I wonder, if that option's turned down? Will the government still feel committed to spending $3 billion on a project that, according to its own figures, seems doomed to be little more than a Band Aid?

The prospect of tolls will, of course, draw a certain amount of griping -- I've heard some already at the office where I work. But the gripes might be fewer than you'd expect.

The B.C. Automobile Association has several years of surveys on the subject, and its members -- a good cross-section of B.C. drivers -- have consistently been 65 to 70 per cent open to tolls on new highways or bridges. They're less thrilled by the prospect of tolls to pay for rehabilitations or expansions -- the number in favour has grown from 36 to 50 per cent over the past four years -- so there's a question of whether this project will be seen as a new one or an upgrade.

Meanwhile, 80 per cent of Lower Mainland respondents have repeatedly identified Highway 1 and the Port Mann Bridge as a top transportation priority, and last year 55 per cent were open to tolls as a way to pay for the improvements.

These are solid numbers for the government to build on.

But, based on the information we have now and on what I expect to see come out in the days and weeks ahead, it looks like tolls are really not an option, but rather a key to making this project work. So the sooner that's acknowledged as an official part of the proposal, the better.

dcayo@png.canwest.com

 The Vancouver Sun 2006




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