TReO decals stuck to the windshield allow registered vehicles to be automatically detected and billed by the Port Mann Bridge's electronic tolling system.

Staged discounts aim to win over Port Mann toll resistance

Strategy to ease motorists into paying to cross new bridge plays on desire for a deal: prof

The first big test of whether drivers open their wallets and embrace the new Port Mann Bridge will come Dec. 10.

That Monday is the first business day with regular weekday volumes after the start of tolling on Dec. 8 when most commuters must decide if they will pay $1.50 to cross.

Even then, many drivers will effectively have free use of the bridge for a while.

Those who sign up with the TReO electronic tolling system by Nov. 30 get a credit for 20 free crossings and won’t really be out of pocket until those are burned off or the credits expire on May 31.

March 1 is another key date, when drivers who fail to register lose their 50 per cent discount and must pay the full $3 toll for regular cars to cross.

That discount continues for registered users until December 2013.

The strategy of offering staged discounts to ease motorists into paying for a previously free crossing is a smart one, said SFU marketing professor Lindsey Meredith.

“I think they learned from the disaster over at the Golden Ears Bridge,” he said.

“It’s no accident you see it phased in with a lot of inducement for people to adapt earlier than later.”

TransLink’s Golden Ears Bridge attracted fewer drivers than expected, he said, because full tolls were abruptly charged with no discounts after a free use period ended.

In contrast, the Port Mann will offer options the Golden Ears still doesn’t, including a permanent 25 per cent discount for registered HOV lane users at peak times and an unlimited monthly pass option for frequent users priced at the equivalent of 50 trips.

So far, the plan appears to be working.

More than 225,000 drivers have already registered on TReO and the province is well on its way to meeting its target of 300,000 to 400,000 registrants, or more than 80 per cent of regular bridge users.

That doesn’t mean that all those registered users will take the new Port Mann.

And toll opponents are organizing on social media like Facebook and Twitter to urge drivers to boycott the bridge or spread the tolls across more crossings.

But Meredith said the large number of early signups gives the bridge an important chance to impress users with its value.

And he said if there’s widespread TReO adoption, opposition campaigns may quickly fizzle.

“The people who are strongly averse to it will be the holdouts,” Meredith said.

“But if you get critical mass and you get enough people to roll over and go with it, that will help convert the holdouts later.”

The TReO electronic tolling system will be able to more efficiently detect cars using windshield decals and bill their credit cards or bank accounts.

Otherwise, licence plate cameras detect unregistered vehicles and – if the toll isn’t paid within seven days – an invoice will go out in the mail, with a $2.30 processing fee, which is being waived for the first three months.

Meredith cautioned many consumers have high debt levels and are spending nearly all their pay cheques, meaning they can’t easily afford tolls that may cost them $1,800 a year by 2014.

To Patrick Johnstone, a New Westminster resident and sustainable transportation advocate concerned about potential gridlock there if more drivers shift to the untolled Pattullo Bridge, the Golden Ears experience remains a cautionary tale.

“They failed to predict that people would spend an extra hour to save $4,” Johnstone said.

“I don’t think we’ll know for sure until the full tolls are charged what the full impacts will be.”

PORT MANN BRIDGE – KEY DATES

Nov. 17– Westbound traffic shifts onto two lanes of new bridge while Cape Horn improvements continue.

Nov. 30– Deadline to get credit for 20 free trips through Treo signup. ($30 value)

Saturday Dec. 1 – New bridge officially opens with eight lanes. – Opening ceremony planned. – Highway widening and interchange improvements east of bridge largely complete.- RapidBus service begins from Carvolth park-and-ride in Langley to Braid Station in New Westminster.

Monday Dec. 3– First business day with new bridge open for free. Expect heavier Highway 1 volumes.

Saturday Dec. 8 – Tolls begin with 50 % discount – $1.50 per standard vehicle.

Monday Dec. 10– First business day with tolls applied. Expect significant shift of commuter traffic to untolled crossings, such as the Pattullo Bridge.

Feb. 28– Deadline to register and extend discount to December 2013.

March 1– Full tolls of $3 per car kick in on for unregistered vehicles.

May 31– Free 20 trip credit expires for early Treo registrants.

Dec. 1, 2013– 50 % discount for registered users expires.

Late 2013– All 10 bridge lanes open, including local traffic only lanes that directly connect Surrey to Coquitlam.

2014– Final dismantling of old Port Mann Bridge.