Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Vancouver's new toll bridge incentivises early registration and provokes debate on road pricing

The province of British Columbia is replacing one of Vancouver's key bridges, the Port Mann Bridge, which carries the Trans-Canada Highway over the Fraser River.  The existing five lane bridge (two lanes each way with a HOV lane) is inadequate for the volumes of traffic over it, and the new bridge will have four lanes each way plus one HOV lane each way, and a cycleway.  The new bridge is to cost C$2.46 billion (US$2.52 billion).  It is being commissioned by the province and will be the world's widest long span bridge.  It is expected to save up to an hour a day in travel time for commuters, suggesting existing queues are significant.

Port Mann Bridge, Vancouver
The current bridge is untolled, but the new one will be, with toll rates capped to rise no more than 2.5% per annum or inflation.  Tolling will be entirely electronic free flow based, using a sticker based transponder (which is supplied free of charge for those who register) and automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) cameras.  Enforcement will include as a last resort, denial of vehicle insurance renewal, and US violators will be pursued through a contractor for debt collection in that country.

The Aldergrove Star reports that the British Columbia government is incentivising early opening of accounts.  The bridge opens in December 2012, and for the first three months the toll will be "half price" at C$1.50 (US$1.54) per trip (for cars), but for those registering accounts over that period they will be guaranteed that price for a whole year.  It is hard to imagine regular users not wanting such a saving, since after the first three months the price will be C$3 (US$3.12) for those who have not registered.  

Light trucks and cars with trailers will pay C$4.50 (US$4.61) for the first three months, then C$6 (US$6.14) if not registered.

Motorcycles will pay C$1 (US$1.02) in the first three months, then C$1.50 (US$1.54) if not registered.

Heavy trucks will not have this discount pay C$9 (US$9.22), but will only pay half price between 9pm and 5am.  

Furthermore, registering an account by 30 November 2012 (before the bridge opens) will mean a C$30 (US$30.72) credit in their accounts (20 free crossings).

Another interesting dimension is that HOV lanes will not be free at peak times, but will have a 25% discount for multiple occupancy vehicles.  It makes sense to not offer such vehicles free access, but unclear why there needs to be a discount at all.

The argument for the discount is that not all lanes will be open on day one, but it makes a great deal of sense to incentivise the creation of accounts, because it will significantly reduce transaction costs for the toll system.   The more users are paying more or less automatically, the less it costs to operate.  The goals is to get 80% of users registered.

Those who do not register and do not have an account can either prepay, or postpay within seven days. After that time they face a C$2.30 fee (US$2.36).

Finally, there is an option to buy an unlimited access pass for motorcycles, cars and light trucks (C$50, C$75 and C$225 respectively).

All of this is positive, and shows a degree of commercial nous in encouraging users to adopt the most cost effective (and convenient) options for them.  However, what else is interesting is that it has provoked wider discussion about tolls and road pricing in Vancouver.

The same article notes that Langley City Mayor Peter Fassbender says there needs to be a look at road pricing in Vancouver.  Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts talked of tolls not be imposed on some roads as a lost opportunity.  

Finally Canadian Taxpayers' Federation B.C. director Jordan Bateman said the Port Mann toll discounts make sense to reduce administration costs but he'd also prefer a look at tolling reform.

"We wouldn't be averse to seeing the province head towards a road pricing system," he said. 

"Provided it was fair and equitable across the region and only if it's tied to a corresponding decrease in the gas tax."

That in itself, is a big step forward for a taxpayers' lobby group to support road pricing, on condition that it was reducing fuel tax.  Surely this gives some scope for British Columbia to think a bit more boldly on road pricing?

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