Sep 23,2009 Vancouver Sun

But the hefty surpluses from tolls are temporary as money is squirrelled away for future years when costs for the span will exceed revenues
By Kelly Sinoski, Vancouver SunSeptember 23, 2009

TransLink appears to be racking up a hefty surplus from Golden Ears Bridge tolls, but that doesn't mean its financial problems are over.

The surpluses are temporary, and TransLink is squirrelling the money away for future years when its costs for the bridge will exceed revenues.

About 643,100 vehicles used the crossing between Langley and Maple Ridge during the month of August, TransLink numbers show.

At an average toll of $3.30 per car -- trucks pay more -- that many vehicles would bring in about $2.1 million.

That's more than double TransLink's costs: a $500,000-a-month payment to the bridge's private operator, Golden Crossing General Partnership, plus $316,000 in operating and maintenance costs.

TransLink says it hasn't calculated the finances yet.

Fred Cummings, vice-president of major construction, said the tolls have been in place for only two months, and it's too early to add up the revenue.

Traffic volume appears to be on target, Cummings said, and should increase over time.

"We haven't looked at the revenue because we've just sent out the bills," he said.

"It takes time for people to pay their bills and that money to come to TransLink."

Any revenue that exceeds costs will be collected in a reserve fund, he said, which TransLink will eventually have to draw on as payments to Golden Crossing are ramped up in future years.

TransLink documents say the main monthly payment to Golden Crossing will increase to $1.5 million in January 2010, rising to $3 million in June 2010, $4 million in July 2011, and $4.8 million a month from July 2015 until June 2041, when the bridge is expected to be paid off.

The staggered ramp-up allows TransLink to avoid high payments in the early years before toll revenue hits its peak.

"It's a rainy day account, I guess," Cummings said of the surplus fund.

"We're hoping to acquire sufficient revenue to pay our [debt]."

TransLink's revenue for the $808-million bridge consists of toll revenue plus a $5.2-million annual subsidy redirected from the now-closed Albion Ferry.

Cummings noted TransLink is also on the hook for $166 million -- up to $14 million a year -- in direct financing costs for property acquisition, toll equipment, project development and third-party commitments.

The transportation authority expects that revenue and costs will be in balance in 10 to 12 years.

Under the tolling scheme, drivers crossing the bridge in a car are billed between $2.75 and $3.90 a trip depending on whether they use transponders that allow for automatic toll payments.

Those without transponders pay higher tolls. Trucks pay more than cars, and motorcycles less. About 25,000 vehicles have been registered so far for transponders.

In August, 330,000 vehicles travelled north to Maple Ridge while 313,100 headed south to Langley.