Tuesday 22 March 2016

Vancouver toll reform needs fundamental rethink

Vancouver has been talking about roadpricing in one form or another for over five years now.  It has been driven by revenue, as ambitions to upgrade and expand public transport aren't able to be met by revenue from users nor existing sources of taxes.  However, behind it is also the interest in using tolls or urban road pricing options to achieve behaviour change.   Both can be achieved simultaneously, but the fundamental problem is public acceptability.  Nowhere in the world have motorists warmly supported paying more to use roads to pay for expansion of public transport.  Stockholm's congestion tax gained support because it literally demonstrably reduced congestion.  Manchester held a referendum on implementing a congestion charge sold primarily on raising revenue to pay for improved public transport, and lost 3 to 1.  

July 2015 a plebiscite was held on establishing a sales tax to pay for improved public transport in greater Vancouver, but nearly 62% of the 52% who voted in the plebiscite.  It seems less likely that motorists will support them paying for other people to get improved public transport, but that doesn't mean that road pricing in Vancouver is fruitless.  Instead, a more complete strategy needs to be developed.

Vancitybuzz reports that the Surrey Board of Trade supports "regional road pricing" with 60% of surveyed respondents agreeing with tolls being introduced on existing roads to support new infrastructure construction.  The issue in Vancouver arises from there being tolls on two bridges on the Fraser River, but not others raising the issue of equity among road users who pay directly to use some crossings but not others.  The report notes that not only are revenues on the (tolled) Port Mann and Golden Ears bridges well below forecasts, but that the untolled crossings are facing higher levels of traffic as motorists avoid the tolls.  One bridge (Pattullo Bridge) needs replacing and the plan is for the replacement to be tolled and the George Massey Tunnel is in a similar position.   The case for a comprehensive strategy to toll all crossings to pay for all crossing improvements and maintenance is not unreasonable, but it will create a de-facto cordon charge towards the south of Vancouver.

In the map below, the black dots are the Port Mann and Golden Ears bridges (from left to right), the red dots are the George Massey Tunnel and Pattullo Bridge (left to right), with a question mark over the Alex Fraser bridge (the only untolled crossing west of the Golden Ears bridges that doesn't need replacement).

Vancouver Fraser River tolled and untolled crossings

However, The Now newspaper online reports that British Columbia Minister of Transportation thinks a solution to the "toll problem" could be years away because it only matters if a decision is made to replace the Pattullo and Massey crossings with tolled crossings.   Whereas Premier Christy Clark when asked about "mobility pricing" (one of the many terms for charging existing roads) she said it was "controversial" and she isn't in a position to take sides (which I think is code for thinking it is a good idea, but not being sure how to support it and not lose too many votes).  

It seems obvious that focusing on toll reform at these crossings is a positive step, as long as it is focused on recovering the capital and maintenance costs of all of the crossings, with tolls that are higher at peak times to reflect demand (and conversely lower off peak).   Raising revenue for wider plans, especially those not involving roads is going to be more controversial (this CBC report indicates two-thirds oppose any increases in taxes or charges to pay for public transport)  but raising revenue for the crossings, including their maintenance will reduce pressure on public finances more generally.  

A long term strategy

Tolls exist on two crossings now over the Fraser River.  Two further crossings need replacement, so the case for tolling them should be able to be made, which raises the question of two other crossings that do not need replacement for now, but will face unacceptable levels of congestion if left untolled.  The case for tolling those crossings needs to be made based on the users of those crossings benefiting from the tolled ones - because of the transfer of demand (and congestion), and for those crossings to be better maintained as a result.  The tolls should be used not just to pay for crossings, but their approach roads and other routes directly related to using the crossings.  

If successful, the obvious next step is to think about the Vancouver Harbour crossings, but also to more clearly investigate more strategic reforms into how roads and public transport are funded for the Vancouver metropolitan area.   That means looking at existing taxes (on vehicle registration and fuel) and whether these need reform or replacement with more usage based charges such as are being piloted in Oregon and soon California (although fuel tax in Vancouver is much higher than in Washington State).   However, it should also do a proper study into the merits of urban road pricing for the city, whether it be looking at cordon charging, area charging or distance charging.  

Yet it also reminds me of how Australia is treating heavy vehicle road reform, (summarised here PDF) which is to reform how roads are funded and managed before introducing direct road user charges.  Going back to first principles may help increase efficiencies and make transparent why and how public funding of land transport infrastructure (and public transport services) is justified.  Having a funding and governance framework that is more widely accepted will make it easier to justify new or higher charges and proposals on spending.

Without this, Vancouver and BC will remain stuck between ambitions for spending that neither users nor taxpayers are willing to pay for, and infrastructure problems of both congestion and aging capital that need addressing.  Can the local authorities and province go to first principles and develop a long term strategy that can get wider support?

UPDATEToronto Metro reports that Vancouver is likely to get capital funding from the Federal Government for at least some of its public transport initiatives, but still faces problems finding the funds to support operating subsidies, with road pricing still on the agenda.  Whereas the Toronto Star editorial from Sunday supports the use of tolls being introduced on two major highways in the Toronto area to fund repairs and upgrades of them, not only because those who pay will benefit from the improvements but because tolling can help reduce congestion (implying the use of peak time tolls to manage demand).  Although a separate type of project, this editorial from one of the largest newspapers in Toronto is a positive sign (although the editorial notes the political reticence over tolling).

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