Referendum Questions: Will a new Pattullo Bridge, Surrey LRT come despite a No vote?

Plan B scenarios for new bridge, light rail network clouded with uncertainty if proposed sales tax is defeated

Replacing the Pattullo Bridge is an urgent TransLink priority because the 77-year-old span could be knocked out at any time by an earthquake, river erosion or a ship collision.

Pulling it offline before a new bridge opens – eight years away at the earliest – would trigger traffic chaos in the region and force toll-averse drivers to go even further out of their way if they won’t pay to cross the river.

The $980-million replacement of the Pattullo with a new four-lane toll bridge, expandable to six lanes, is by far the biggest road-related project in the mayors’ plan.

But No forces say it shouldn’t be on the ballot at all – that it’s merely bait to lure drivers to vote Yes in the referendum for an otherwise transit-heavy plan.

So will a new Patttullo come even if voters defeat the proposed 0.5 per cent sales tax increase to fund transportation upgrades?

TransLink officials said as recently as October they’d aim to rebuild the Pattullo Bridge even if the referendum fails.

Other observers also say that’s likely.

“The Pattullo bridge probably would go ahead anyway,” said Robin Lindsey, a transportation and logistics professor at UBC’s Sauder School of Business. “The LRT plan in Surrey is less likely, but still far from a dead prospect.”

Tolls alone would cover most of the long-term financing cost of the new bridge.

But an expected shortfall in toll revenue in the early years means there’s a funding gap to be plugged – $90 million over the first 10 years or $130 million over 15 years – that the mayors say would be covered through the sales tax hike.

It’s unclear where that will be found if there’s a No vote.

“I’m not saying it won’t be replaced,” Port Coquitlam Mayor Greg Moore said. “But I’m not sure where you get that $90 million of new revenue from because the provincial government’s been very clear that any new revenue has to go through a referendum.

“Does the province or the federal government come up with that extra subsidy? Potentially. But there is no local money to do it.”

The province has pledged to cost-share a third of the Pattullo construction and rapid transit projects under the plan. The mayors assume that money isn’t certain even under a Yes vote but that it will pay the bridge off faster if it does arrive.

TransLink has delayed major maintenance on the existing bridge as much as possible but a No vote will force that work to proceed – $200 million will be spent on band-aid repairs of a bridge that should soon be torn down. A Yes result means those savings instead help fund the replacement.

While a new Pattullo is to be user-pay, mayors intend to have a road pricing system in place by the time it opens, so it might not be tolled in the same way as the Port Mann and Golden Ears bridges, but as part of a broader system that Moore says would be more fair.

Surrey-area voters also wonder if they’ll get a $2.1-billion light rail network regardless of the referendum outcome because of Surrey Mayor Linda Hepner’s election promise to find a Plan B for LRT, if necessary.

Residents are wrong if they think they’ll pay less by voting No, she said.

“Plan B does not come free,” Hepner said. “We will be paying for it, make no mistake, one way or another.”

The difference, Hepner said, is Surrey alone may have to pay for LRT, without the costs being spread over the rest of the region, without one-third cost-sharing from senior governments and without the new sales tax capturing money from tourists and visitors from outside Metro.

“It’s equitable funding from right across the region and from those who are visiting our region,” Hepner said. “A No vote means it will likely come at a very specific cost to Surrey alone.”

Private partners might front the project costs but the city would still have to pay them.

Hepner won’t say how money would be raised for a light rail Plan B.

But Surrey’s new mayor and council so far haven’t hesitated to raise local taxes to keep promises – they immediately imposed a $100-a-home “recreation” levy so the city could hire more police officers.

Referendum Questions is a Black Press series exploring issues related to the Metro Vancouver transit and transportation referendum. Voters must mail in ballots by May 29 on whether they support the addition of a 0.5 per cent sales tax in the region, called the Congestion Improvement Tax, to fund billions of dollars worth of upgrades. Follow the links below to read more in this series.