Tuesday, 10 February 2015

News shorts: Vancouver, Washington State

Vancouver debates a sales tax to pay for transport

Although evidence and professional opinions would suggest that road pricing is the best way forward for Vancouver, it is instead going to hold a referendum on a sales tax that will be hypothecated to pay (primarily) for more public transport.  The tax will be 0.5% on all sales.  The North Shore news reports  that the tax will raise C$250m (US$201m) per annum, at a cost of between C$125 and C$250 per household, depending on which side of the argument you believe.  Of course that includes households that wont use any of the proposed transport projects and those who will use it everyday.  Equity and economic efficiency are thrown out of the door in the quest to raise tax revenue.

Hypothecated general taxes for transport are no more intelligent than such a tax for health or for subsidising farms.  However, it is a question of what can be done politically and legislatively, versus economic rationale.

A better approach would be at least some increase in taxes on owning and operating vehicles, a more rational appraisal of where benefits lie with some of the projects (and then charging accordingly) and looking at expanding tolling.  It is always unclear quite why everyone should pay regardless of their use of the transport network or the benefits they obtain (whether they be users, property owners or businesses).

Ballots will be sent out March 16, and votes must be in by May 29, 2015.  It's none of my business, but I'm hoping for a no.  Sales taxes are very poor ways of raising money for specific purposes, and it is telling that advocates of it clearly don't think they could convince the users of the new infrastructure to contribute much of the capital cost.

Washington state consulting on higher HOV thresholds for HOT lanes

According to the Bothell/Kenmore Reporter, the Washington State Transportation Commission in consulting on tightening up the eligibility for vehicles to use the I-405 HOT lanes that are currently under construction.  The idea being that high-occupancy vehicles (HOVs) will need three occupants to use the new lanes untolled.  This is inconsistent with the current approach to such lanes in the state, whereby two occupants are sufficient. 

I wrote about these lanes before, questioning their financial viability, but now it seems like this move is designed to partially address this.  However, the report indicates that having a three occupant HOV threshold is needed to cover operating costs, re-emphasising my point that new capacity HOT lanes invariably are a form of subsidised new capacity.  Those paying to use the lanes are not paying the capital costs of the capacity, but paying as a market mechanism to manage demand.  That's positive in terms of ensuring a high quality of service (and bearing in mind that users of parallel untolled lanes benefit from the transfer of traffic onto the new lanes), but it is not a solution for funding new capacity.  It appears that the key goal is meet the federal and state guidelines of maintaining a 45mph average speed, and it is more fair to target the HOV users, rather than hiking the tolls.

In terms of pricing the report says:

The recommended average toll for the express lanes will be between 75 cents and $4 at the start of the tolling system. More congested days would fall between $4 and $10, the latter being the maximum and expected only 10 percent of travel days. Seventy-seven percent of trips are expected to be below $1, according to the WSDOT.

As I've said before, I see value in converting underutilised HOV lanes to HOT lanes, and even in considering whether new lanes should be toll lanes.  However, as HOT lanes you leave some users benefiting whilst paying nothing more for vastly improved levels of service.  It is more equitable and financially prudent to simply build them as toll lanes.


  1. I think HOT lanes are a case of "softly softly catchee monkey". They defy logic in some ways (after all a vehicle with multiple occupants can better afford to pay a toll) but they have been successful in spreading the concept of rationing by price.

  2. Yes, they are a step forward, but are they a dead end? Not sure. Probably more helpful than not.