Cool concepts in road pricing for Metro Vancouver

From the 2014 funding plan of the TransLink mayors

Photo from the 2014 funding plan of the TransLink mayors

In his first news conference this month as British Columbia’s minister for Metro  transportation, Peter Fassbender said road pricing deserves a “serious and concerted look” as a possible way to fund transit and regional roads. Mr. Fassbender is a former City of Langley mayor, now a provincial legislator, with a close knowledge of the issues. A sales tax proposal was defeated in a recent referendum; the 17-year-long search for a transit funding formula will now resume.

The road pricing mention matters to the region’s road users, especially long-distance commuters like me. We would face increased costs in return (supposedly) for quicker trips, because some motorists would choose other transportation modes or stay home. And reduced congestion would (supposedly) benefit all taxpayers by reducing the demand for new highway construction.

Serious consideration of bridge and highway tolls was part of the Metro region’s Transport 2021 plan in 1993. Since then we’ve acquired two toll bridges, the Golden Ears (2009) and the reconstructed Port Mann (2012). The proposed Pattulo Bridge rebuild is a third candidate for tolling. A 2010 consultant’s study for TransLink, the regional transportation authority, looks at options for going further. Boiling it all down, three candidate programs emerge:

  • Toll all inter-city bridge crossings, such as the Lions Gate, the Knight Street and the Pitt. This would spread the bridge tolling pain to areas outside the eastern suburbs. It would also create obstacles to movement, isolating the North Fraser, Richmond and the North Shore as mini-regions.
  • Create London-style tolling rings around congested town centres. It’s a neat idea, but only the crossroads city of New Westminster really qualifies, and New West businesses might object to being singled out in this way.
  • Install electronic gizmos in every vehicle and bill motorists for every kilometre they drive. The report warns that as of 2010, there was no international  technical standard for this kind of innovation.

The fairest system is #3, although ongoing delays around the TransLink fare card, still in the test stage, has probably dampened the public appetite for technical adventure. The simplest solution is #1, but it also comes with political baggage. The former New Democratic Party provincial government vowed in the 1990s that existing bridges would never be tolled, and the subsequent Liberal government has made the same commitment. In either case, political acceptability could be increased by collecting higher tolls in peak hours, giving drivers the option of paying lower tolls or no tolls in the off-peak.


London’s “congestion charge” zone (2010)

On a point of jargon, briefly:  “tolling” and “road pricing” are sometimes used to signify different things, with “road pricing”  describing a dispersed, mile-by-mile way of grabbing revenue. The April 2014 TransLink mayors’ report on transportation funding dodges the issue by referring to “mobility pricing,” a general term that captures any user-pay mechanism. The mayors praise “mobility pricing” in a way that makes it clear they are talking about road and bridge tolling:

“…we are now firmly committed to staging the introduction of more comprehensive mobility pricing…we’ll see more immediate benefits in terms of reducing congestion, improving fairness by asking people to pay for what they actually use, and generating revenue to support needed investments across the transportation system.”

The data journalism site Moving Forward has published a tool related to the universal road pricing system proposed in bullet 3 above. An example: Gary lives in Vancouver Fairview and commutes to south Burnaby. At an assumed rate of 2 cents per kilometre,  Gary would pay 50 cents per day in road charges. If he moves to distant Aldergrove but commutes to the same workplace in Burnaby, his daily road pricing cost rises to $2.20. (Moving Forward complicates the picture by suggesting that fuel taxes could be reduced to offset road pricing, but I’m baffled by this: it would keep every vehicle on the road, and in fact would reward fuel inefficiency.)

So would road pricing actually support transit operations and reduce the need for new roads at the same time? Maybe. Not automatically. It could be argued that the promise of road pricing (or tolling) revenues has been used in Metro Vancouver mostly to justify the construction of massive new ribbon-cutting projects. Yes, we have tolls on the two newest bridges, but the annual taxpayer subsidy to the tolled Golden Ears Bridge has risen in every year of operation, as shown below, because the original toll revenue projections were wrong. The toll revenues are flowing in, but they pay less than half the cost of financing and operating the facility. The tolls on the Port Mann, which were to “pay all costs,” are also falling short to the tune of $100 million per year.

Not a dime from these bridge tolls is going to fund transit. This suggests that future road pricing will provide dispersed benefits to transit and transportation only if it comes from dispersed sources.

 Golden Ears and Port Mann deficits

Planning for renewal in Chilliwack

Dom 1

Vicki and I are loyal to Chilliwack. We worked with the City on community planning  projects in the 2000s and were impressed with Council’s vision and respect for citizen participation.

So on a recent Saturday visit with co-tourist Dominic Kotarski, I was saddened to see a downtown core on hold, with vacant lands, empty storefronts and few people on the streets.

The pedestrian liveability of Chilliwack’s downtown area, as measured by access to services, is not too bad; but part of this depends on proximity to vehicle-oriented malls that have sapped the vitality of historic village at the core.

An abandoned Safeway property, c. 1960, next to the Chilliwack village core; the closest supermarket to the core is in a plaza a couple of blocks further out

An abandoned Safeway property, c. 1960, next to the Chilliwack village core; the closest supermarket to the core is in a plaza a couple of blocks further out

Five Corners, the central intersection of Chilliwack's downtown village

Five Corners, the central intersection of Chilliwack’s downtown village

Chilliwack lies in the central Fraser Valley, more detached and more self-sufficient than the interlocked suburban cities to the west. Its recent achievements include the recent construction of a new exhibition complex, a recreation centre and a professional-scale hockey arena and concert venue. But as in Abbotsford, Maple Ridge and Mission, the downtown village has lost retail customers to automobile-oriented plazas nearby and on the regional highways, and has acquired social service agencies and the visibly homeless. Chilliwack has looked for solutions through a Downtown Neighbourhoods Strategic Plan (2007), a Downtown Land Use Plan (2009), and, in response to social issues across the city, a Healthier Communities Strategic Action Plan (2014). There has been a concerted effort to house the homeless, and in the most recent regional homeless count, the number of Chilliwack homeless has declined.

The land use plan notes that as of 2006, 54 per cent of the population in the broadspanish centre retouched reduced downtown area were renters. Half the renters and a quarter of homeowners were in “core housing need”, meaning they spent a high percentage of their income on housing. At the same time, there were concerns about the quality of the housing stock.

The plan suggests that revitalizing Chilliwack’s downtown will depend on improving the quality of housing for lower-income people as well as bringing more people, and more affluent people, into the area. Ideally, the downtown population would double to 20,000 between 2007 and about 2030.

Unfortunately, this overhaul and densification of the downtown is not yet on track, judging from a visual check and a look at the BC Stats population charts. It’s a problem we see region-wide, in the suburbs we mention above as well as other spots such as Cloverdale. The renewal plan is right in theory, but the new residents aren’t showing up, and the developers aren’t building. It is, arguably, a chicken-and-egg problem: “there is a need for diversified housing for different lifestyles and income groups, in particular for seniors, young families and low income renters.” Without suitable housing, people will look elsewhere.

A credible façade, but most shops in this row on Yale Road are empty

Holding for development: a credible façade, but most shops in this row on Yale Road are empty

Chilliwack’s City government took an ambitious step in 2012 with the demolition of the Paramount  theatre, a local landmark, in preparation for the redevelopment of a key downtown block at the Five Corners. To date there has been no redevelopment. One of the few remaining shopowners told us that timing for new construction is unknown.

Dom and I parked at the high school and walked across the northeast quadrant of the downtown core. The trendy downtown café I used to frequent is gone, and the Five Corners pub where we ate appears to be struggling.

[This is #29 in our Urban Villages series.]

Looking out from the central park

Looking out from the central park

Vintage rental apartment housing northeast from the core

Vintage rental apartment housing northeast from the core

A detail from the 2009 downtown land use plan

A detail from Chilliwack’s 2009 downtown land use plan

Portland light rail to the rescue


Max interiorThe Amtrak train broke down at the station in Vancouver, Washington, a 20-minute drive from downtown Portland in normal traffic.

Vancouver Washington rail operations (right) seen from the platform

Vancouver Washington rail operations (right) seen from the platform

The Amtrak people did not seem to have a customer service plan. After 45 minutes they announced they were working to fix a problem with “the air.” The temperature rose; outside it was 35 degrees Celsius or 95 Fahrenheit. After an hour and a half, most people had climbed out to seek refuge in the small air-conditioned station or mill about on the pavement hoping for a taxi. But there were few taxis to be had — one Vancouver taxi driver who ventured into the area refused to go to Portland, because he said he was nearing the end of his shift — and Amtrak was not providing emergency buses or suggestions on how to reach the city. Continue reading

A homeless camp in a Vancouver suburb

2015 homeless camp 1 reduced

Nicole Read, the mayor in my home city of Maple Ridge, won election as a political newcomer in November 2014. The local election campaign was marked by concern over downtown property crime, linked by some to the presence of homeless people in vacant spaces nearby. The homeless have been a prominent feature of the town centre for more than a decade, but the incumbent mayor and council were blamed and Read  got the political benefit.

Weeks after the mayor’s swearing-in, a colourful row of tents sprang up on a residential street 200 metres from my home. In the 2014 Metro Vancouver homeless count, Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows together were said to have 39 unsheltered homeless people. By July 2015, the estimated population of the Cliff Avenue camp was about 60. Continue reading

3 vaguely cheerful thoughts on Metro Vancouver’s transit vote

Slide from 2010 planning presentation (South Coast British Columbia Transportation Authority)

Slide from 2010 planning presentation (South Coast British Columbia Transportation Authority)

Elections BC advised us on July 2 that Metro Vancouver residents have rejected a 10-year transit plan, which was to have been funded from a sales tax hike. The political gridlock around transit funding, already 17 years old, will continue.

It’s sad for most of us that Western Canada’s largest urban area can’t figure out how to run a bus service. Most of us — because a minority, I’m guessing 15 per cent, would prefer to see public transit privatized or abolished. Continue reading

A sort of urban village at Coquitlam City Centre

Lafarge Lake, at the edge of the new Coquitlam downtown

Lafarge Lake, at the edge of the new Coquitlam downtown

The walkable urban village at Coquitlam City Centre has emerged recently, with a new area of residential towers, neighbourhood offices and cafes forming a bridge from older housing to the vehicle-dominated Coquitlam Centre megamall.

The Regional City Centre precinct is projected to reach a population of something around 50,000 by 2041, forming a commercial and cultural hub for the northeast part of Metro Vancouver. Continue reading

At Crescent Beach

Beach 1

The historic heart of Crescent Beach is partly screened from the rest of the city of Surrey, British Columbia by a railway line — operated today by Burlington Northern and Santa Fe, a 32,500-mile network controlled by Warren Buffett with all of 30 track miles in Canada.

Two and three generations ago, the railway line brought people out from Vancouver to enjoy days along the shore. Some built modest cottages and stayed for a few weeks during the summer, and a few of the old cottages still stand. On a clear morning, the promenade along the dyke from Blackie Spit park around the corner to the seafront cafes is one of the finest short walks in the region. Continue reading