B.C. woman could lose auto-insurance coverage after racking up more than $5k in unpaid bridge tolls

The Golden Ears Bridge. CBC photo.

I don't know whether Melanie McIntosh is a victim of circumstance or just poor money management.

The suburban Vancouver woman owes more than $5,000 in bridge tolls and, according to CBC News, is not being allowed to renew her car insurance as a consequence.

She seems to be the most egregious of thousands of some 14,000 freeloaders who owe $25 or more for using the Golden Ears Bridge. It opened in June 2009 to replace a small, free ferry that took vehicles across the Fraser River between suburban Maple Ridge and Langley, east of Vancouver.

The elegant span is obviously more convenient and also cuts a lot of time off the trip but it's been underused. People seem to balk at paying for something that used to be free, and apparently plenty of those who use the bridge don't feel obliged to pay the minimum three bucks per car – and up to $10 for large trucks – in electronic tolls per trip.

A similar problem is developing with the new Port Mann Bridge on the Trans-Canada Highway across the Fraser, which opened in 2012. The 11-lane tolled span ($3 for cars) replaced a smaller free bridge and dramatically reduced congestion, but many vehicles, especially large trucks, are avoiding it in favour of free alternatives.

[ Related: Port Mann Bridge traffic down, but tolls to remain ]

McIntosh, who lives in the southern suburb of White Rock, used Golden Ears to commute to her job in Maple Ridge. But she fell behind in paying her bill and then got laid off from work.

Melanie McIntosh speaks with CBC news. CBC photo.

"The bill did build up over a couple of years," she told CBC News. "I paid off little bits here and there, but it wasn't enough to bring it down quick enough."

The bridge is owned by TransLink, the quasi-government agency that oversees roadways and mass transit in the Vancouver area. It has an agreement with the Crown-owned Insurance Corp. of B.C. (ICBC) allowing it to ask the provincial auto insurer to withhold renewals for those who haven't paid up.

McIntosh's tab now totals $5,200. She said she won't be able to renew her car insurance in May unless she pays off the entire sum. It's a major problem, since she has a new job and drives to work.

"I've never said I'm not paying it, but for anyone to be insured to get to work legally, and to be able to drive with a legal licence, you need that block taken off," she told CBC News. "I just need some sort of payment arrangement."

There are non-toll alternative routes to get from White Rock to Maple Ridge but they're irrelevant if McIntosh can't get insurance.

[ Related: Coderre says 'no' to toll on new Champlain Bridge ]

Canadian motorists aren't big fans of tolls. The Golden Ears bridge is costing TransLink $45 million a year, not including unpaid tolls, due to traffic volume that's been lower than projections, CBC News said.

Montreal's new mayor, Denis Coderre, has come out against a proposal to place a toll on the replacement for Montreal's busy Champlain Bridge, which is supposed to be in place by 2018.

The only existing Montreal-area toll bridge, over Riviere des Prairies between Laval and the borough of Rivière-des-Prairies–Pointe-aux-Trembles, recorded 420,000 unpaid trips since it opened in May 2011, CTV News reported last December. However, the bridge's operators contend 98 per cent of the 25 million trips over the bridge were paid.

Back in Vancouver, the Crown-owned Transportation Investment Corp. that operates the Port Mann Bridgecan also ask ICBC to withhold insurance renewals for unpaid tolls.

But toll-avoiders might take some hope from a decision last December involving unpaid tolls on Toronto's Highway 407 Electronic Toll Road (ETR).

The Toronto Star reported that the Ontario Court of Appeal ruled the province could not withhold vehicle permit renewals for a few motorists with unpaid tolls. The only catch is, they have to be bankrupt.

The Appeal Court ruling determined that holding up vehicle-permit renewals contravened federal bankruptcy legislation, which operates on the principle of giving the insolvent a fresh start.