PORT COQUITLAM, B.C. - Premier John Horgan is citing fairness and affordability for his fledgling NDP government's decision to eliminate tolls on two major Vancouver-area bridges in time for the Labour Day weekend.
Tolls will come off the Port Mann and Golden Ears bridges on Sept. 1, a move Horgan said is aimed at treating commuters in the Lower Mainland the same as those travelling in other parts of the province.
"The tolls, in my opinion, are unfair," he told a news conference in Port Coquitlam on Friday.
"If you live in Kelowna you don't pay tolls to cross a bridge. If you live on Vancouver Island you don't pay tolls to use the highway. If you live in Whistler you don't pay tolls to use public infrastructure. You shouldn't have to pay tolls because of where you live in Maple Ridge or Surrey or other points south of the Fraser River."
Horgan said eliminating tolls will save an average commuter $1,500 a year and commercial drivers crossing a bridge once daily will pocket at least $4,500.
Getting rid of tolls will also allow commuters to get home earlier as they stop using alternate routes "just to save a few bucks," said Horgan, whose announcement fulfills a key election promise for his minority NDP government.
"Families will benefit mostly from this decision," he added.
About 121,000 vehicles a day use the Port Mann Bridge connecting Coquitlam and Surrey, and about 40,000 use the Golden Ears between Surrey and the Pitt Meadows-Maple Ridge area.
Green Leader Andrew Weaver called the decision "reckless" because it transfers $3.4 billion in debt from the Port Mann Bridge to the province, leaving less money to spend on social programs.
“There is no question that the affordability crisis facing so many British Columbians is a significant concern. However, this policy is high cost and low impact," he said in a statement.
"It is disappointing that the first major measure that this government has taken to make life more affordable for British Columbians will add billions of dollars to taxpayer-supported debt."
The Liberals promised to eliminate tolls on the Port Mann Bridge and work to eliminate them on the Golden Ears in a throne speech before they were defeated in a confidence vote about two months ago that allowed the NDP to form a government.
On Friday, the Liberals said the NDP's decision does not consider the long-term financial implications for the province.
"The premier himself said today that people shouldn't have to pay tolls based on where they live," finance critic Shirley Bond said in a news release. "Transferring the debt from these bridge projects to the province is essentially telling northern and interior British Columbians that their tax dollars will be subsidizing Metro Vancouver commuters."
Both bridges are still in the red, years after being built. This year's provincial budget projected the Port Mann Bridge would lose $88 million in 2016-17 and $90 million in 2017-18. The Golden Ears Bridge lost $45.2 million in 2015.
Horgan said the decision will cost the province about $132 million this year and that can be managed without affecting borrowing costs.
Transportation Minister Claire Trevena said about 180 workers will be affected by the elimination of tolls. While all of them won't lose their jobs, there will be job losses, she said.
The toll to cross the Port Mann Bridge is $3.15 for cars, pickup trucks and sports utility vehicles, and $9.45 for commercial vehicles. The toll on the Golden Ears is $3.20 to $4.45 for cars, and $9.45 to $10.70 for commercial vehicles.