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.
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.