Armchair Mayor column published in the Saturday, Sept. 27 edition of The Kamloops Daily NewsAs pleased as I am that tolls are off the Coquihalla, I can’t help but shake my head at the way Gordon Campbell does things. He is like a bear who can’t stop bluffing charges. He will be absolutely strident, unbending, stubborn on an issue, then bail at his own convenience and pretend he never wanted to do anything else. The Coquihalla is a classic example. Only a year ago, Campbell’s amiable transportation minister Kevin Falcon was saying tolls would remain on the Coquihalla for the foreseeable future. What was “foreseeable”? Maybe five years, he said. They would stay there until the cost of constructing the highway had been recovered, he said. Of course, that was never the deal. The promise by the Bill Bennett government that built the highway was that tolls would be in place only as long as it took to recover the cost of accelerating its completion in time for Expo ‘86. That is a whole lot different than paying for the whole highway. In fact, the cost of acceleration was met eight years ago. While Campbell and his ministers have tried to talk around the purpose of the tolls, one thing was clear — they were a cash cow, raking in tens of millions of dollars a year for Victoria. Weaning yourself off that is a little like trying to quit smoking. Just to muddy things a little more, the Liberals brought the issue of maintenance into the picture, citing the high annual costs of keeping the Coquihalla in shape, as further justification for tolls. As I wrote in an editorial in Feburary of 2006, “Continuation of the toll is a blatant and, in some respects arrogant, money grab to pad the provincial coffers.” Three years before that, in a column headlined Ten Things the Government Should Stop Saying About the Coquihalla, I challenged a list of Campbell’s claims about the Coq, and urged him to set a target for removal of the tolls. About a year and a half ago, the Kamloops and Kelowna chambers of commerce teamed up to demand that the toll be removed. Unfortunately, other chambers didn’t back them up. Everyone will remember, of course, Campbell’s ridiculous plan to privatize the Coquihalla — ie. lease it to a private operator — and allow an immediate 30-per-cent increase in tolls, tolls that would last at least 55 more years. “Let’s start by deciding whether we want to make decisions based on the best interests of the province and best public policy or are they based on how people feel — popularity,” Campbell said in Clearwater in defending the idea.
After insisting in June of 2003 there was no way he would abandon the plan, he flip-flopped in July and gave up on it after a coalition of business people, labour, and community leaders convinced him there was absolutely no public support — none — for privatization.
Kamloops had a major part both publicly and behind the scenes in making this message clear. But after privatization was dropped, Campbell renewed his insistence that tolls would remain, for a long time.
What has caused the sudden turnaround? According to Campbell, the total capital cost of the Coquihalla was $848 million. At current toll revenue of $57 million, “the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure anticipates that revenues collected from the tolls since its opening will have effectively offset those total capital costs by next month.”
Seems simple enough. So simple, in fact, that any beginning math student could surely have figured it out if provided with the government’s numbers on costs vs. revenues, factoring in inflation. Except that this government has never offered a calculation of when the highway would be be paid off. It never offered any reassurance, no light at the end of the tunnel.
Surely, a year ago, Falcon could have estimated the end date for tolls based on those numbers. Surely, Campbell could have done the same.
It seems a little odd, doesn’t it, that the provincial Liberals should have been so adamant about keeping tolls “for the foreseeable future” as Falcon put it?
Equally as odd is that in June 2006, Falcon’s estimate of annual toll revenues was $40 million per year. Campbell put the number at $57 million yesterday, close to a 60 per cent increase in just two years.
If those numbers are accurate, the government has done an about-turn on a cash generator that was showing stupendous growth.
I wouldn’t for a moment suggest it’s anything but coincidence that the Liberals have been taking a beating lately and need a boost in popularity fast, since a provincial election will be upon us next spring.
Nor would I mention that the Interior is an especially troublesome area for them, thanks to the carbon tax.
Maybe none of this matters — the important thing is that the toll is gone. It was nothing more nor less than a discriminatory tax on the Interior, and its removal is good news for travelers and for the economy of this region.
The next time this government is adamant about something, though — such as that tolls are going to stay, that a highway will be sold, that Kamloops doesn’t need a university or, even, that the carbon tax is here to stay — it might be a sign that change is in the wind.