More drivers are using the Golden Ears Bridge, according to TransLink statistics, but that doesn't mean Metro Vancouver's first toll bridge will ever pay for itself.
The tolled Golden Ears Bridge recorded an eight per cent increase in traffic in January, the same month that tolls for most users of the Port Mann Bridge doubled with the end of introductory discounts.
But TransLink officials say they doubt much of the gain is due to a shift of toll-averse drivers back to the Golden Ears since half-price tolls at the Port Mann ended Jan. 1 and standard $3 tolls took effect.
"That may have contributed a little bit," said Sany Zein, TransLink's director of infrastructure and network planning. "They may have decided to just use the shortest route instead of going around. But we don't think that's the biggest factor."
He said the increase to 903,800 crossings last month from 837,500 in January of 2013 was similar to the year-over-year gain in January of previous years.
This January was also marked by dry weather, which tends to increase travel, Zein added.
He said the Golden Ears serves north-south traffic and is less likely to be an alternative to the Port Mann.
Instead, growing economic activity in Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows is likely driving traffic up, he said.
More people who travel between north Surrey or Langley and Maple Ridge or Pitt Meadows are discovering the time savings of using the crossing, he added.
"The bridge is becoming part of the fabric of the communities."
Even with the recent uptick, the Golden Ears is still falling far short of its original traffic forecasts, leaving TransLink to absorb a roughly $35 million annual shortfall between the tolls that come in and the payments it must make to the bridge builder.
That's a subsidy of roughly half the bridge's annual payments that aren't covered by tolls.
The original traffic forecasts and revenue targets drawn up in 2004 – before the 2008-09 recession – have been discarded as irrelevant and gains of about 1.5 to three per cent per year are now expected, Zein said.
The average number of daily crossings was 30,100 as of December.
Zein said TransLink will pay off the bridge as scheduled over 32 years, but subsidies are expected to continue.
The extra money comes from other parts of TransLink's budget.
This year should see the promised integration of billing for the Port Mann and Golden Ears, so drivers who use both bridges no longer have to pay using two separate systems.