Tolls and the decline of driving

Golden Ears Bridge reducedMetro Vancouver’s transportation authority has created a stir with the disclosure that tolling revenues on the Golden Ears Bridge, which have been below expectations since the bridge opened in 2009, are falling even further behind. After hopeful signs in 2012, the public subsidy on the bridge is going up, not down.

This is significant because the Golden Ears is the first modern-era toll bridge in urban British Columbia. The bridge was supposed to introduce a user-pay system for the funding of roads and bridges.

We’re embarked on a long-term trend that Golden Ears Bridge planners probably underestimated when they ran the traffic forecasts ten or fifteen years ago. I’ve referred before on this site to the decline of driving in North America, and this decline is continuing. A new state-by-state analysis from the US Federation of Public Interest Research Groups sees an unbroken eight-year decline in per capita miles driven in the United States. In Washington state, a kind of mirror to B.C.across the border, per capita driving has dropped by 5.5 per cent since 2005 and 9 per cent since 1999. This is not the end of driving, but it means the revenue curve for road and bridge tolls is increasingly far from what was predicted.

Vancouver transportation blogger Stephen Rees has written on how the decline of driving will depress fuel tax revenues, another key source of transportation authority revenues. Mr. Rees draws in turn on an an article from NewGeography.com, which offers 11 not always consistent reasons for the decline of driving. Here are my own ideas on what’s causing the trend, entirely subjective:

  • Shopping from home.
  • A general perception that fuel costs are high, and may rise further, causing working-age people to look for employment closer to home, or to move their homes closer to work.
  • Working from home.
  • An ageing population, less likely to drive long distances for entertainment and less likely to drive for fun.

NewGeography makes the point that the North American automobile market achieved something like saturation in the 2000s, after a very long period when the number of cars per thousand population was rising. Everyone who wants a car now has a car, and we can only drive one car at a time.

2 responses

  1. In addition to your last point re aging population, my votes are (1) for simple economic reasons. People will use the infrastructure, and demand more, as long as it is free (as in no direct toll fees), (2) the “New Normal” rolling recessions – people don’t have to drive to work when they don’t have jobs, (3) persistent high gas prices relatively to stagnant wages, and (4) the general attitudes of the Gen X/Y populations – they care much less about cars and they prefer to live in the city. Check out these graphs on vehicle miles driven in the US –pretty telling: http://thenextturn.com/peak-auto-driving-might-have-passed-generational-peak-in-the-u-s/

    • I guess my response on the “simple economics” thing would be tempered by the following: first, the decline in driving pre-dates the economic slump of 2008; second, the USPIRG report notes that driving among higher-income people is actually declining faster than driving among lower-income people; and third, Canadians are travelling more than ever for tourism and business reasons — we spent $35 billion in travel outside Canada in 2012, up more than 6% from the previous year. We ain’t driving as much as we used to, but we ain’t broke.

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