Todd Litman (left) is head of the Victoria Transportation Policy Institute. Stephen Rees (right) is the BC Green Party's transportation critic.

Fix tunnel gridlock with tolls, not new bridge: Expert

Transit advocates push alternatives to promise of rebuilt Deas crossing

Transportation expert Todd Litman has a radical proposal to quickly solve congestion at the Massey Tunnel – one that doesn’t involve waiting a decade for a new bridge or borrowing billions of dollars.

He would slap tolls on the Highway 99 crossing immediately.

Litman argues small tolls charged now and only during peak periods would decongest the corridor and allow a free flow of traffic through the tube.

The money collected could fund better bus service on the corridor and connecting routes, he said, providing a more viable transit alternative for drivers who don’t need to use their own vehicles.

“You prevent the congestion from getting severe,” Litman said. “It’s the efficient, rational solution that could actually start providing benefits in a year.”

Premier Christy Clark last month vowed the province will begin planning to build a new Deas crossing over the next 10 years.

Litman, head of the Victoria Transportation Policy Institute, said charging low tolls now would at the very least ease gridlock and build acceptance of higher eventual tolls on the corridor ahead of a replacement.

He said that’s smarter than building a new crossing first and gambling – as with the Golden Ears Bridge and new Port Mann Bridge – that drivers’ willingness to pay will cover the costs on schedule.

“People complain about traffic congestion,” he said. “But if you ask if they’re willing to pay extra in taxes or tolls to finance it, a lot of the demand disappears.”

At best, Litman said, it may turn out the demand-dampening effect of Highway 99 tolls along with better transit could avoid the need for the project altogether.

He’s one of the observers who sees growing evidence for a concept called ‘peak car’ – where a trend towards people driving less than in the past may mean it’s time to reconsider how fast road capacity needs to expand.

“I think it is important to start questioning those assumptions.”

Other transportation observers in the region see the province’s promise of a new crossing as one that’s likely to devour funding that could otherwise go to needed transit upgrades.

“I think there will be a revolt if they continue to neglect transit and continue to pour billions of dollars into highways like this tunnel,” said transportation consultant and freeway expansion opponent Eric Doherty.

He noted bus/HOV lanes on Highway 99 are already in place to speed buses past congestion approaching the tunnel.

“TransLink has buses that can be put on the road if we had the funding,” Doherty said. “Rather than something decades away, it could be weeks away.”

Richmond Mayor Malcolm Brodie has also urged increased transit as an immediate solution.

Stephen Rees, the B.C. Green Party’s transportation critic, warned building a giant new bridge to replace the tunnel would be an exercise in futility, simply shifting congestion a few kilometres down the road into Richmond.

“You’ve simply taken the lineup that now forms on the south end of the tunnel and you’ve put it on the south end of the Oak Street Bridge,” he said.

Rees rejected the notion that talk of tolling the tunnel will force the region into a broad and fair system of road pricing, rather than ad hoc tolling of just some crossings.

“Road pricing is going to be horribly unpopular,” he said. “I just don’t see that one getting off the ground, democratically.”

He said it’s “very tricky” to come up with a fair system that affects every trip in the region and succeeds at controlling peak congestion.

TransLink will work with the province on plans for a Massey Tunnel replacement with a view to maximizing transit, strategic planning vice-president Bob Paddon said.

He said TransLink recognizes the importance of goods movement but does not support road capacity expansions that would induce new single-occupant vehicle trips in the region.