Fewer vehicles crossed the tolled Port Mann Bridge in 2014 than the previous year, but provincial government officials say the decline was expected and appears to have been temporary.
The decrease in total traffic was 3.9 per cent, with 34.7 million crossings in 2014 compared to 36.1 million in 2013.
Most bridge users enjoyed half-price tolls throughout 2013 due to an introductory discount offer that ended Jan. 1 2014 when full $3 tolls kicked in.
Officials at the Transportation Investment Corp, which manages the new bridge, said they fully expected a dip in use in early 2014 as discounts ended and motorists tried free alternatives, such as the Pattullo Bridge.
They also predicted drivers would eventually come back to the Port Mann for its time savings and say the latest counts now show that’s happening, albeit later than expected.
December traffic over the bridge was up 2.6 per cent from the same month in 2013 and TI Corp. spokesman Greg Johnson said January traffic is up nearly five per cent.
“Traffic on the bridge is now stable and growing,” he said.
But the Crown corporation has downgraded its traffic growth forecast for the years ahead, now estimating it at 2.5 per cent per year.
Johnston said an earlier growth forecast prepared before the recession of 2008-09 was much too ambitious.
The TI Corp.’s current service plan, filed with the government before the declines of 2014, shows it assumed revenue growth of nearly 10 per cent in both 2015 and 2016.
Even with that revenue estimate, Port Mann/Highway 1 debt was expected to rise to more than $3.6 billion by 2014 from an initial construction cost of $3.3 billion.
Johnston said the more conservative traffic growth expectations are now forcing TI Corp. to borrow more money than expected to fund operations over the next few years to offset lower revenue.
He said the updated forecast still indicates TI Corp. will fully pay off the Port Mann/Highway 1 project debt by 2050, as planned, with no taxpayer subsidies.
TransLink’s tolled Golden Ears Bridge has also struggled to attract as many drivers as originally predicted.
But the Golden Ears had an improved 2014, with traffic volume up six per cent instead of a projected two per cent, in part because of the implementation of full tolls at the Port Mann.
NDP transportation critic Claire Trevena said she has serious doubts as to whether the the bridge can be paid off on time without raising tolls by more than the annual rate of inflation, which she said would drive even more motorists away.
“The government has created a real albatross for everybody in B.C.,” she said.
She said the Port Mann experience should be a cautionary tale but the province is plunging ahead with plans to build a new bridge to replace the Massey Tunnel. It’s widely expected to be tolled as well.
“They could be going straight into it a second time,” Trevena said of the Massey bridge. “We haven’t seen any business plan for this. If they can’t make one billion-dollar boondoggle work how are they going to justify another one?”
New Westminster Mayor Jonathan Coté said too many motorists who don’t want to pay the Port Mann toll drive through his city.
His proposed solution is to reduce the toll at the Port Mann and charge the same, lower amount at the Pattullo Bridge as well, even though work has not yet begun on its $1-billion replacement.
“There would be less vehicles diverting off the highway network to the Pattullo Bridge and onto roads not designed for that purpose and you’d have more revenue generated and an ability to have a lower toll on the Port Mann Bridge,” Coté said.
He said that would bring a net benefit while still recognizing that money needs to be generated to support both crossings.
“Having a toll bridge and a free alternative three kilometres down the road is not very efficient from a transportation point of view.”