Laila Yuile Headshot

Bait And Switch Toll Reduction Won't Help B.C. Liberals

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The Port Mann Bridge project has been steeped in controversy from its humble beginnings as an economically prudent plan to twin the existing bridge at a cost of $1.5 billion to what we've ended up with today: a completely new bridge and highway project totaling $3.3 billion financed through tolls.

Wednesday's announcement by newbie B.C. Transportation Minister Mary Polak that the tolls on the Port Mann will be reduced for a period of time with incentives -- call now and the next five people get a free Shamwow -- is no less controversial than the project itself for one very good reason.

Mary Polak is of course a Liberal MLA in Langley facing an election in 2013, along with MLA Rich Coleman and likely Surrey MLA Stephanie Cadieux. Each has confirmed they intend to run again to the press and it's very apparent to everyone (except Mike Klassen apparently) that the Liberal brand has been all but blown up by the disingenuous Christy Clark. Quite frankly, these MLAs are going to need every bit of help they can get.

The question is, will a reduction in tolls make any difference at all to hardened voters weary of the endless stream of politicking from Clark, the second most unpopular premier in Canada? I don't think so, and this is why. The Liberals are using the old bait and switch trick, one they've perfected over the last 10 years. Sure we get a discount at first, but eventually we're all going to be paying -- for the rest of our lives quite frankly.

To those of us who travel the bridge, it had been clear for years something needed to be done to address the gridlock on both ends. Public transportation south of the Fraser is horrific during the week and nearly non-existent in some areas on the weekend, making vehicles mandatory for most.

So back in 2008, with the process to twin the existing Port Mann Bridge well underway, a preferred bidder was selected and negotiations began between the province and the winning consortium.

However, in January of 2009, it was revealed that Macquarie, part of the consortium selected to handle the project, was having troubles getting financing in the increasingly unstable economic conditions being felt worldwide. This was the very first sign of trouble on the horizon.

Shortly thereafter, then premier Gordon Campbell and Transportation Minister Kevin Falcon announced the private partners didn't want to pour money into maintaining the current Port Mann Bridge and lo and behold, a grand new plan appeared to build an entirely new bridge and highway upgrade at the new inflated cost of $3.3 billion. Most interesting was the development that the province was going to take on financing one-third of the bridge themselves, another definitive sign something big was amiss.

Once again, it wasn't long before Falcon called yet another press conference, this time announcing that even Macquarie, the Liberals' best offshore advisors, could not secure finance terms that suited Partnerships BC, and the P3 partnership was called off.

In a reversal remembered by many, Falcon, who had earlier announced with great conviction that the P3 model was best deal for this project and taxpayers, suddenly announced that the government would be financing the entire project themselves, via a traditional fixed price contract.

Ironically, he also pointed out that this was a better deal for taxpayers because government could borrow money at a far better rate than any private partner could and while Kiewit/Flatiron would remain as builders, Macquarie was also being kept on in an "advisory role."

The design build contract was never put back out to tender, a move criticized by many in the industry as unfair and irregular. No questions were answered to why Macquarie was being kept as advisers or how much they were paid, both facts that remain obscured to this day.

Even worse, while politicians have repeatedly stated this is a "fixed price contract," contract documents reveal many clauses and indemnities that call into question the true cost of the project.

Now please, I know it's hard, but try, if you can, to ignore the fact the government is tearing down a perfectly sound bridge with many years of life left, at the cost of $39 million dollars.

Try to ignore the fact that this project actually started out with a $1.5 billion price-tag for the very feasible solution of the twinned version.

Now try really hard to forget that when the grace period is over, when that year-long discount is over, you are going to be paying to cross that bridge for the next 40 years of your life.

Oh, you can't ignore that? Neither can I. I'll be in my 80s when the tolls come off -- if I live that long!

That's why this old bait and switch, "discounts now, pay later" fallacious politicking won't make a damn difference to the voters in 2013. Indeed, the entire project has been included as part of Falcon's legacy to this province during his tenure in the transportation ministry.

Unfortunately it's a legacy that if anything, only highlights the need for a cohesive regional strategy -- and government -- that is transparent and equitable, not punitive and narrow sighted.

The underwhelming "success" of the Golden Ears Bridge is proof in the pudding.