For whom the (bridge) bell tolls

Will election promises about reducing, eliminating bridge tolls apply to new Okanagan Lake crossing?

And they’re off…

With B.C’s provincial election now well underway, dollars—which flowed freely prior to the writ drop—have been replaced with promises of more government spending, and cuts to what many in this province pay for provincial services.

Last week, the governing Liberals came out with what they saw as their trump card in wooing Lower Mainland voters—especially those living south of the Fraser River—a $500 a year cap on the amount drivers spend on tolls for using the Port Mann and Golden Ears Bridges over the Fraser River.

But the limelight was short-lived. The NDP quickly countered its own toll-related announcement—the abolition of those tolls altogether. And, for good measure, raised the toll-reduction ante saying it will reconsider the Liberals plan to build a toll bridge to replace the existing George Massey Tunnel linking Delta and Richmond.

It remains to be seen however if the two parties respective toll promises extend beyond the Metro Vancouver.

In the Central Okanagan there is currently a study underway looking at the future of Highway 97. A major component of that study is if, when, where and how a second crossing of Okanagan Lake would be built. It’s a crossing that, up to now, appeared a certainty for tolls if built given the close proximity of the existing, and free, William Bennett Bridge linking Kelowna and West Kelowna. That bridge is currently the only crossing of 90-kilometre-long lake.

While arguments can be made for the relaxing or elimination of tolls on the Port Mann and Golden Ears Bridges given the distance to any nearby free alternatives, that would be harder to do here. But should drivers here be treated differently than those in Metro Vancouver.

In the 1990s, the NDP government had a policy of not tolling new bridges if there was not a free alternative nearby. It was a policy the Liberals seems to embrace—for a while—after first taking power in 2001. They even dumped the toll on the Coquihalla Highway. But over the years, that thinking seems to have changed. The Golden Ears bridge, linking Langley with Pitt Meadows and Maple Ridge was built to include a toll, and so was the replacement for the old Port Mann Bridge.

Now, with an election at stake, tolls are, well, taking a toll, in the minds of politicians.

So, will Okanagan drivers get the same treatment as Lower Mainland counterparts if, or when, a second crossing of Okanagan Lake is built? With no decision made yet about the building a second bridge here, the answer is likely going to be lost in political equivocation.

But voters here deserve to know if they are going to be treated the same as those behind the wheel in Metro Vancouver.

This issue may not be quite the same as building roads to win votes, but black-top politics did start in this part of the province with former premier WAC Bennett, and the tradition continued with his son, another former premier, Bill Bennett, after whom the bridge here is named. And both men represented ridings that include the seat held, until last week’s election writ was dropped, by current B.C. Premier Christy Clark.

So how about it? Will drivers have any toll they pay on a second Okanagan Lake crossing capped under a Liberal government after May 9, or abolished under an NDP government? If it’s the right thing to do in Metro Vancouver, why not Kelowna too?

Alistair Waters is the assistant editor of the Capital News.

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