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Infrastructure funding in the spotlight as bridge tolls fall

Click to play video 'NDP announce the removal of Metro Vancouver bridge tolls' NDP announce the removal of Metro Vancouver bridge tolls
Premier John Horgan announces at a press conference Friday why the NDP are removing tolls on the Golden Ears and Port Mann Bridge.

The NDP has followed through on its marquee campaign promise to axe tolls on the Port Mann and Golden Ears bridges.

But as reaction pours in, there’s one key theme: how will the province now pay for existing and future projects?

READ MORE: B.C. NDP eliminating Golden Ears and Port Mann bridge tolls starting Sept. 1

The NDP’s key ally, the BC Green Party has slammed the move, calling Friday’s announcement a “reckless policy” that would increase debt.

“Tolls are an excellent policy tool to manage transport demand. Transport demand management reduces pollution and emissions, alleviates congestion and helps pay for costly infrastructure,” said Green Leader Andrew Weaver in a statement.

LISTEN: Green Party Leader Andrew Weaver reacts to eliminating tolls on the Port Mann & Golden Ears bridges

The official opposition BC Liberals also slammed the move, saying it would add cost the province $135 million a year, while increasing taxpayer supported debt — costs rural British Columbians will have to pay.
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In an emailed statement, finance critic Shirley Bond also warned the move could threaten B.C.’s standing with credit agencies.

“We can only hope this announcement doesn’t affect British Columbia’s AAA credit rating.”

Eliminating the tolls will move up to $4.2 billion in debt onto the province’s books as taxpayer supported debt.

LISTEN: B.C. NDP eliminating Golden Ears and Port Mann bridge tolls starting Sept. 1

Meanwhile, Metro Vancouver’s mayors appear generally pleased with the plan, but are already raising questions about how the region will pay for future transit and infrastructure upgrades.

Speaking to guest host Jill Bennett on CKNW’s The Simi Sara Show, Delta Mayor Lois Jackson said she has serious questions about the province will replace income from the outgoing tolls.

“This is something we don’t know yet. I understand there is supposed to be some long term financial plan. But I’m always a little bit concerned when we don’t have a financial plan available to see where we’re going to be going in the future.”

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LISTEN: Mayor of Delta reacts to BC NDP’s ‘Toll Free B.C.’ announcement

Mobility pricing

Friday’s announcement has also put the debate around the controversial concept of mobility pricing in the spotlight.

Metro Vancouver’s mayors believe the program, which would involved charging drivers in some widespread capacity for their use of the roads, could help the region generate its 20 per cent share of funding for its ‘10-year vision‘ for transit and transportation, while easing gridlock.

Ottawa and Victoria have committed to covering the other 80 per cent.

Earlier this summer the Metro Vancouver Mayors’ Council established a commission to sketch out a plan for a mobility pricing scheme.

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Mobility pricing  appeared to be at the top of the list for Port Coquitlam Mayor and Metro Vancouver board chair Greg Moore.

“All of us in the region that voted for the Mayors’ 10-Year plan, our second phase of funding was mobility pricing. So we had identified that four years ago, as a ‘where to go.'”

WATCH: Commission set up to look at mobility pricing options for Metro Vancouver

Click to play video 'Commission set up to look at mobility pricing options for Metro Vancouver' Commission set up to look at mobility pricing options for Metro Vancouver
Commission set up to look at mobility pricing options for Metro Vancouver

A report from the mobility pricing commission is expected by next spring, according to TransLink CEO Kevin Desmond.

That document will focus on “equity, fairness, how to finance transportation, how to manage the transportation network,” he said.

But he said it’s too early to say just how much the amount drivers were paying in tolls on the two bridges will compare to what they’d pay under mobility pricing.

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READ MORE: The NDP promised to eliminate bridge tolls, but could mobility pricing be on the way?

Surrey Mayor Linda Hepner said she is hopeful killing the tolls will help distribute traffic flow more easily.

With the announcement out of the way, she said the focus should now be on funding the replacement of the aging Pattullo Bridge — but stopped short of saying mobility pricing should be used to fund it.

“I will not presume what the work of the commission is. They are the experts, I’m going to leave it to them.”

TransLink is currently finishing a preliminary design and environmental assessment for the 80-year-old bridge’s replacement, with construction expected to start in 2019 once funding is secured.

WATCH: How will the bridge debt be paid without tolls?

Click to play video 'How will the bridge debt be paid without tolls?' How will the bridge debt be paid without tolls?
How will the bridge debt be paid without tolls?

Hidden taxes?

At least one government spending watchdog is sounding the alarm that axing the tolls could come with new, hidden taxes.

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“Anytime we see a levy or a toll or a fee or a tax that’s eliminated we applaud it. Because that means it’s more money that stays in our pocket,” said Kris Sims B.C. director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.

READ MORE: How True Is It? Eliminating tolls on Port Mann, Golden Ears bridges will threaten B.C.’s credit rating

But she said that assessment comes with a caution, warning the money needs to come from somewhere.

“If the B.C. government isn’t able to come up with another way to make sure that this money is generated, they can also provide it in a more hidden way,” she said.

“So they could increase fuel costs, they could increase property taxes, they could increase registration fees for your vehicles, something like that.”

As for plans to move towards regional mobility pricing, Sims said it’s too early to assess the impact, but that her group will be watching closely.

-With files from Jeremy Lye