Fewer drivers than originally expected are paying tolls to use the Port Mann Bridge

Port Mann deficit climbs as drivers shun toll bridge

Reduced traffic forecast means more red ink expected over short term for Highway 1 project

Fewer drivers than expected are using the tolled Port Mann Bridge and the resulting weak revenue has now translated into a growing deficit for the the Crown corporation that manages the project.

An updated financial outlook for the Transportation Investment Corp. released Tuesday with the provincial budget shows the annual operating loss will hit $100 million a year in 2015 and climb to $106 million by 2017.

Annual losses were expected in the early years of the project while traffic volumes gradually increase, but they were supposed to be held to between $75 and $80 million a year.

The corporation still forecasts it will fully pay off all the costs of the Port Mann/Highway 1 project by 2050, when the province has pledged tolls will be removed.

The total project debt is currently $3.6 billion, up from an initial construction cost of $3.3 billion.

The TI Corp revised its traffic forecast last year, cutting short-term revenue estimates by about 20 per cent from what had been set when the bridge was designed, prior to the 2008 recession.

Last year saw a 3.9 per cent decrease in bridge usage to 34.7 million crossings from 36.1 million in 2013, although officials claim they see early signs of a rebound this year.

The last annual report blames low usage on the recession, avoidance of Highway 1 by drivers during the construction period, higher average gas prices and the “popularity” of the new express bus service over the bridge from Langley.

“The long-term forecast confirms that TI Corp. remains self-sufficient and is on track to meet its long-term financial obligations,” the report said.

“The long-term forecast is for traffic volumes to grow on Highway 1 in the years ahead because of significant population, employment and economic growth expected in Metro Vancouver and particularly south of the Fraser River over the next 30 years.”

Toll revenue is expected to continue to increase, from $120 million in 2014 to $128 million this year and $145 million by 2017. Previous estimates had called for revenue to hit $144 million in 2014 and $174 million in 2016.

Had the toll revenue come in on track, it would have been about $10 to $15 million a year more than the project’s debt repayment costs, which are $145 million this year and $168 million in 2017. Instead, the project can’t yet meet even the borrowing charges, let alone its $31 million in operating expenses, which includes $12 million a year in highway operations and maintenance and $14 million a year in toll collection costs.

TI Corp officials have said they are considering some form of loyalty program to attract more regular users to the bridge, but have not yet released details.