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Simple road pricing scheme could happen fast, forum told

A basic road pricing scheme like one being tested in Oregon could be tried in the Lower Mainland almost overnight – if only there was support from the provincial government.

That was the blunt assessment of SFU economist Nancy Olewiler, who fielded questions on the issue with other panelists at a Surrey Board of Trade forum Friday.

"We could pilot it with ICBC tomorrow if we had the political will at the provincial level," Olewiler said.

Such a scheme, modeled from a voluntary pilot project in Oregon, would charge drivers who sign up a per kilometre fee and in exchange give them a credit against their insurance premiums or the gas tax they pay.

It would create an incentive for drivers to drive less, particularly if there was a time-of-day pricing applied to encourage a shift to off-peak travel.

Olewiler suggested the technology could be a GPS unit installed in vehicles or it could just use drivers' cellphones.

Privacy concerns will be an objection to some, but Olewiler noted most already have location services enabled on their phone apps.

"You give Google all your information, why wouldn't you give it to ICBC?"

The aim of any eventual road pricing system would be to encourage drivers to take fewer trips or take them at off-peak times, reducing congestion at the worst pinch points and the worst times.

"We need something that makes people use the system more efficiently," Olewiler said. "If I have a choice of when I can drive and I'm paying for that, I'm going to look at reducing the amount of driving I do at peak times."

$1 bridge tolls?

Olewiler, a former TransLink board chair, is part of a group of economists that have urged a road pricing pilot project in Metro Vancouver by applying small tolls on all bridges. Delta Mayor Lois Jackson has recently advocated for $1 bridge tolls at all crossings.

While there are 300 million bridge crossings a year now, Olewiler conceded $1 tolls wouldn't directly translate into $300 million in revenue after tolling infrastructure and administration costs.

The system might also have the effect of reducing traffic, resulting in lower than expected tolls.

Nor is it clear how much revenue would be left for transit improvement – if any – after annual payments to cover the debts of building the existing toll bridges as well as planned new ones.

Olewiler suggested "dynamic pricing" would be best with higher rates than $1 at peak times and free travel overnight to get the best congestion control results.

If she had to pick one system to conduct a test on, she said she'd go with an ICBC-administered one based on kilometres travelled because it's simpler and would avoid the need for costly new tolling gantries on numerous bridges.

She acknowledged that blanket bridge tolls also create a fairness issue – drivers could still roam the Burrard peninsula from the Tri Cities to UBC without paying a nickel.

Tolling policy 'completely flawed'

Any reform would require B.C. government consent.

Olewiler said the province's existing tolling policy is "completely flawed" but she's optimistic Transportation Minister Todd Stone will consider changes.

A pilot project would be useful, she said, because the road pricing experience of cities like Stockholm and London has shown public support builds as people get a better idea of how it works.

Also supportive of lower tolls on all bridges was B.C. Trucking Association president and CEO Louise Yako.

"We don't have a specific figure in mind in terms of what that toll should be," she said. "All I know is it's lower than what's being charged today on the Golden Ears Bridge and the Port Mann Bridge."

Truckers will benefit from reduced congestion, she said, if drivers who can take transit get a financial nudge to do so.

Yako said it would fix inequities of just tolling some bridges now and stop the diversion of traffic that happens because "some people are driving simply to avoid tolls."

Metro Vancouver mayors are exploring long-term road pricing options but aim to find funding separate from that sooner to finance transit expansion.

Jim Whitty, an Oregon consultant who helped craft that's state's emerging road user charges, said the impetus came from the decline in gas tax revenues, which have not kept pace with total miles driven as more hybrids and electric vehicles hit the road.

TransLink gets about $340 million a year from its 17-cent-a-litre gas tax.

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