Occasionally I get asked a question like this “If you could do one thing to improve the transportation system in the region what would you do?” My response is often rambling, incoherent and usually ends up with me making a long laundry list of transportation projects I would like to see get done. Yet if I wanted to genuinely attempt to answer this question it would probably be to see Metro Vancouver implement a regional road pricing system. As an elected official this is likely not the safest political position to take. My campaign manager once told me, “I know you are interested in improving the transportation system, but tolls are a political loser”. He may be right, but if we want to build a transportation system that reduces congestion, increases sustainable transportation options and properly funds the region’s transportation infrastructure I think we need to talk about it.
Road pricing is nothing new in Metro Vancouver. Tolls have been used for years to fund the construction of bridges including the new Port Mann and Golden Ears crossings. Although this system has been useful in raising funds for these projects they have not been used to achieve any other benefits for the region’s transportation system. Implementing one off tolls has also had the negative impact of causing some unintended consequences such as shifting congestion to toll free routes. Although road pricing is very useful at raising funds for transportation projects it can also be used as an important demand management tool if designed properly.
In my opinion there are three elements that would be essential to the creation of an effective road pricing system that would not only raise funds but also improve the transportation system for all users.
1. Implement a reasonably priced toll (eg. $1 per crossing) on all major crossing in Metro Vancouver.
This concept has been brought up before and has actually been promoted by a number of the region’s leaders including the mayor of Surrey, Dianne Watts. This system would be more equitable with a small toll be applied to all of the bridges in Metro Vancouver as opposed to having larger tolls being placed on a select few. It would also prevent traffic from shifting to toll free routes and reduce congestion in neighbourhoods that are being punished by the haphazard tolling policy that currently exists.
2.Implement time of day road pricing
For road pricing to become an effective demand management tool, the toll prices need to reflect the demand from road users on an hourly basis. An example on how this might be achieved is shown below:
Weekday Morning & Evening Commute 5am-10am 3pm-7pm $1.25
Weekday Mid-day 10am – 3pm 50 cents
Weekday Evenings 7pm to 5am Free
By implementing a time of day road pricing system, congestion during peak commuting times would be reduced as some travel would shift to less costly times. This system also partially addresses the social equity issue as it allow opportunities for groups such as low income seniors access to toll free periods. Thought also needs to be given to implementing daily limits on charges to prevent some road users from being unduly punished because they need to make multiple crossings during a single trip.
3. Revenue should be directed towards the entire transportation system
If it was up to me(which it is not) I would divide the revenue from a regional tolling strategy into three equal parts.
- I would dedicate the first third of revenue into the expansion of the public transit system in the region. It is unfair to implement a road pricing system unless more residents are given viable public transportation options. Increasing the public transportation mode share will also have the benefit of reducing pressure on the regions road system.
- I would dedicate the second third of revenue towards the major crossings in Metro Vancouver. The bridges that exist in Metro Vancouver are a vital part of the regions transportation system and funding needs to be available so that these facilities are able to fulfill their role in the region’s transportation network.
- I would dedicate the final third of revenue back to the municipalities (proportionally based on population) to allow each city to deal with their own transportation challenges. Every municipality has their own unique transportation problems and these problems hurt not only the individual municipalities but the region’s transportation system as a whole. This would allow municipalities to focus the resources on the priorities that matter to their community.
Although I am not an advocate for referendums on transportation projects (as I feel they ultimately lead to poor transportation planning), I think municipal leaders need to recognize that the successful party in the recent provincial election made a very clear and specific promise to hold a referendum on this topic. Instead of fighting this referendum I personally feel the focus now needs to be on how this referendum can be focused on achieving positive results for our regions struggling transportation system. Road pricing faces an uphill battle in this political fight, but I have written this piece in the hope of deepening the conversation on this matter. I truly believe that road pricing can play a very important role in improving the region’s transportation system.