09/12/2012 05:36 EDT | Updated 11/12/2012 05:12 EST

B.C. government offers discount on new 10-lane Port Mann bridge toll

VANCOUVER - The B.C. Liberals know the road to re-election could be bumpy.

But offering a smoother ride for commuters in the way of a deep toll discount for a major new bridge project is not a pre-vote goodie, says the minister in charge of the project.

Transportation Minister Mary Polak announced Wednesday a passenger vehicle toll that was to be $3 will be cut in half for up to a year for the new 10-lane Port Mann Bridge that connects Coquitlam and Surrey in the Lower Mainland.

The decision was made after the Crown corporation overseeing the project crunched the numbers and determined the billions in construction costs that must be recovered via tolls should still add up by the payoff date of 2050, she said.

Polak said the original, higher toll was only ever a proposal.

"Certainly we want to do everything we can on individual projects to ensure that British Columbians are being served and would want to see us re-elected to government," Polak told reporters in Vancouver.

"But I'm under no illusions that one project and one announcement is going to do that."

The government bills the new Port Mann as the largest transportation project in the province's history, and eight of its ten lanes are scheduled to open to traffic in December.

A $1.50 discount will be offered until March, unless commuters register by end of February for a special account to gain the reduced toll until all lanes open at the end of 2013.

Commuters shouldn't have to pay the full toll until they get the full service of the bridge, she said. When the bridge is fully function, commuters will spend up to an hour less in their vehicles.

Those who register will receive a windshield decal that guarantees the introductory rate, as well as other incentives such as a $30 credit on their account if they sign up by end of November. HOV users will also get a 25-per-cent discount during peak hours.

More registered account holders equates to fewer invoices, which will mean lower administrative and operating costs and that's how the Crown corporation can afford to make the cuts, Polak said.

"It doesn't increase debt, it doesn't increase the costs."

But the discount does come as the Liberals carefully steer their way towards a May election, with polls showing the NDP ahead in popularity for several months now.

An Angus Reid poll released on Wednesday showed the governing party had gained three points since August, but that only put Premier Christy Clark's Liberals at 25 per cent support compared to the NDP at 46 per cent.

NDP Transportation critic Harry Bains, a Surrey MLA, contended the toll cut is a Liberal party "gimmick," and could end up like the Liberal's promise not to bring in the HST. The hated tax was introduced not long after the party won the 2009 election.

"I don't think there's any way around it other than this is electioneering," he said.

Bains contends the party is providing relief at the start of paying off a $3.3 billion contract, but noted commuters will still eventually have to make up the costs.

"Or you have to have higher-than-forecasted traffic. And they can't promise you that that's exactly what's going to happen," he said. "So the chances are the tolls could go up if they are not on target in as far as bringing in the sufficient revenue."

But Langley Mayor Peter Fassbender, whose city will also be served by the bridge, said he feels the discounts are appropriate.

"They've done the numbers, they've said it's going to work," he said. "I take that at face value and I believe it's a benefit to every single resident in the region."

That means it doesn't matter if politics factored into the decision, he said.

"I see this as good government, and conversely, it's good politics. and I'm OK with that because I do that everyday."

The Liberal government last slashed a detested road toll in 2008.

Then-premier Gordon Campbell removed tolls for the Coquihalla Highway when they amassed to about the amount the highway cost to build. Some $845 million was collected over 22 years.