British Columbia has two beautiful bridges that have gone from construction projects into political footballs.
The Golden Ears Bridge, a $808 million six-lane bridge connecting Langley to Pitt Meadows and Maple Ridge, opened in 2009 under the promise that tolls would pay for the construction and maintenance costs. The much more heavily traveled Highway 1 received an upgrade to its Port Mann Bridge when, in 2012, a brand-new 10-lane structure—when opened it was the widest bridge in the world at 213 ft—connecting Coquitlam to Surrey cost the government of BC over $3.3 billion in construction costs. It, too, was to use tolls to pay for the project.
Both bridges have had lower-than-expected revenues, with the Port Mann structure losing millions of dollars every year. And now the murky political situation in BC may greatly reduce or eliminate tolls altogether on both structures, putting debt payments in limbo. With the question marks surrounding tolls on the current bridges, the planned new $3.5 billion George Massey Tunnel Replacement Project bridge south of Vancouver now falls into question.
And it all comes down to politics, at least right now.
In the May 2017 election, the Liberals, which had been in majority control previously, won enough Legislative seats to lead the government, but not enough to go into the straight majority. The NDP and Green Party could team up to gain minority control.
Either way, tolls on the existing bridges may take a major turn, as the Liberals want to cap tolls on current and future—read: George Massey—to $500 per year. The NDP wants to eliminate tolls altogether and both the NDP and Green Party stand opposed to the new George Massey bridge. If they do team up, will they halt forward movement on a project that has started pre-construction but hasn’t awarded a full construction contract?
No matter what happens on the George Massey project, what happens to the debts already in place on two bridges struggling financially? The Vancouver Sun researched the situation, finding that the BC government-owned Port Mann Bridge lost $407 million in its first five years, with that trend continuing. With the bridge losing money, the original debt has now ballooned to $4.2 billion.
Things aren’t substantially better for the TransLink-maintained Golden Ears Bridge. While the bridge does bring in money from tolls, TransLink must subsidize its debt repayment on the bridge due to skewed toll revenue projections and still owes over $1 billion on the bridge due to its loan structure.
While the BC government has made overtures it will eliminate tolls, which will undoubtedly increase traffic on the structures, it hasn’t explained how it will pay back the debt on the bridges, except to say that it will pay for them as they would any other construction project in the province.
With the future of tolling uncertain for BC bridges, the future of bridge construction has also grown murky.