Referendum Questions: Will road pricing or new bridge tolls also come?

Road pricing isn't on the ballot but Metro Vancouver mayors envision revenue-neutral road use fees to reduce congestion, lower gas tax

Metro Vancouver mayors aim to introduce road pricing, which could replace the current system of tolling only new bridges with consistent tolls on all existing crossings, or per-kilometre road use charges on all major routes.

So is that idea also scuttled if Metro voters defeat the proposed 0.5-per-cent sales tax increase that would fund transit expansion across the region?

The Mayors’ Council intends to explore road pricing options regardless of the outcome.

A referendum No vote on the congestion tax does not block tolls on a replaced Pattullo Bridge nor does it prevent an eventual move to road pricing.

Mayors propose road pricing be revenue-neutral under a Yes outcome that authorizes the new sales tax; road use fees would replace bridge tolls within eight years and allow a six-cent-per-litre reduction in the TransLink gas tax.

A No vote that blocks the extra $250 million per year from sales tax may create more pressure to instead pursue the idea as a revenue generator.

Port Coquitlam Mayor Greg Moore said there’s been no debate about that and the province has been clear that any new funding source has to go to referendum.

Road pricing is part of the mayors’ long-range vision because making drivers pay to travel by road is expected to have a profound effect on how they choose to get around.

Road tolls that change by the time of day – charging more at peak times and less or zero off-peak – would spur some drivers to drive at cheaper times or take transit, easing the worst congestion at rush hour peaks and making the system more efficient, experts say.

“It spreads the peak,” says Robin Lindsey, transportation and logistics professor at UBC’s Sauder School of Business. “Those people who are more flexible will go to the off-peak and the people that have no choice but to travel on the peak and pay will have quicker trips.”

The ideal system, he says, would be one where vehicles are tracked by satellite and charged according to how far they drive.

“It’s an economist’s dream and most motorists consider it their nightmare,” said Todd Litman of the Victoria Transportation Policy Institute.

He calls road pricing a smart solution compared to raising revenue from other types of taxes, because of its ability to limit congestion.

“If it’s done correctly, it’s a real win-win.”

A modest toll on all major bridges – $1 to $2 on any crossing of the Fraser River, Burrard Inlet and False Creek, with reductions at off-peak times – instead of higher tolls on just a few would greatly improve congestion, Litman predicts.

Years of study is expected before one recommended model for road pricing emerges.

Tolling gantries could also be erected to charge drivers to use highways or to cross specific lines in the region so the system captures east-west trips that don’t cross bridges, such as Coquitlam to UBC or Fort Langley to Tsawwassen.

Litman also agreed a comprehensive GPS-based tracking system would be the ultimate way to track all vehicle trips and charge according to where they travel and when.

Singapore has had road pricing with gantries for years but is moving to a GPS system to charge by distance. Oregon is testing a voluntary road-pricing system that uses GPS to charge 1.5 cents per mile driven in exchange for a rebate on fuel taxes.

Litman said the pricing system could have a daily cap on the maximum a driver is charged, or a home zone exemption that allows a certain number of free kilometres each day.

Road pricing could also fix the unfairness of the current system of just tolling new bridges, which causes people to drive far out of their way to avoid paying.

The mayors’ plan projects a 24-per-cent drop in how far people drive over the next 30 years.

“This progress comes partly through investment in alternatives to driving, but fully three quarters of that progress is from the introduction of time- and distance-based road tolls,” the plan says, adding “pricing will need to play a pivotal role” to reach plan targets.

Any road pricing scheme would have to recover at least the $120 million a year in tolls paid at the Port Mann Bridge and $40 million at the Golden Ears, plus presumably finance new bridges to replace the Pattullo, the Massey Tunnel and potentially others in the future.

According to mayors’ council estimates, each penny charged per kilometre travelled could add up to roughly $100 million per year in revenue under a road pricing scheme.

It would take about $115 million to chop the gas tax from 17 to 11 cents a litre, or $350 million to eliminate it altogether.

Without road pricing, new bridges are assumed to be tolled like the Port Mann.

Transportation Minister Todd Stone has promised a review of the province’s current tolling policy, which allows tolls only on new infrastructure and only if there’s a free alternative.

He has indicated the current tolling system would have to be reorganized in the name of fairness if the region ends up with just one heavily congested untolled crossing of the Fraser – the Alex Fraser Bridge.

The No campaign leader Jordan Bateman said he’s not yet convinced the existing Massey Tunnel needs to be replaced and he doesn’t buy claims road pricing would be revenue-neutral.

He said there are privacy concerns about a GPS system, which would be complex and fraught with potential problems.

“In theory, road pricing is great,” Bateman said. “But when TransLink gets their hands on theoretical things and makes them real, they have a disturbing habit of screwing them up.”

Referendum Questions is a Black Press series exploring issues related to the Metro Vancouver transit and transportation referendum. Voters must mail in ballots by May 29 on whether they support the addition of a 0.5 per cent sales tax in the region, called the Congestion Improvement Tax, to fund billions of dollars worth of upgrades. Follow the links below to read more in this series.