Report recommends regional road pricing

Pitt Meadows mayor supports such a system.

  • Nov. 3, 2015 12:00 p.m.

Metro Vancouver motorists could save time and money, if they could get used to paying for how far they drive or even what time they get behind the wheel, says Canada’s Ecofiscal Commission.

“Congestion pricing has worked in cities around the world, benefiting local economies and drivers. It’s worth finding out if it can work here,” said commission chair Chris Ragan.

It could lead to lower tolls on the Golden Ears Bridge, but the addition of those on the Pitt River Bridge.

An Ecofiscal report, released this week, found that  Metro Vancouver’s bridge and tunnel traffic pinch points should all be tolled as part of a road-pricing pilot project to battle congestion.

It’s difficult, though, for TransLink to try out any new tactic as any new revenue source must get the public’s approval through referendum.

Last spring, a proposal to raise the provincial sales tax by half a per cent was rejected by referendum.

In October, Premier Christy Clark reiterated that there will be no change to that policy.

Clark re-affirmed the province’s requirement when Metro Vancouver mayors voted to study road-pricing options.

“I think it’s an idea whose time has definitely come,” Pitt Meadows Mayor John Becker said of road tolls.

Traditionally, tolls were intended just to raise money. Now they can also shape road usage to minimize traffic jams, Becker said.

He isn’t pessimistic about the province’s position and doesn’t see the referendum-requirement as a deal breaker.

“There’s nothing to say we can’t get together and work together.”

The Mayors Council, TransLink and Metro Vancouver can all “do better things than we have in the past,” added Becker.

“There’s no impediment to that other than some entrenched attitudes.”

There’s nothing stopping the Mayors’ Council from saying it wants to investigate the costs of road tolling, in concert with TransLink.

Becker said every government tries to fulfill its mandate. From the province’s perspective, referenda should be required for any new revenue. But the government has to reach a consensus with other levels of government, he added.

Ragan visited Vancouver earlier this month and spent an hour and 45 minutes going to Surrey in rush hour via the free Pattullo Bridge, then 25 minutes back again via the tolled Port Mann Bridge.

He said the clogged conditions on the Pattullo and its approaches stem from the decision to toll the Port Mann Bridge without a coordinated approach at other crossings.

“You want to not just toll one bridge, you want to toll the set of bridges.”

He said that change would eliminate the problem of drivers going out of their way to get to an untolled free bridge and in the process adding to traffic congestion.

According to the Ecofiscal Commission, congestion pricing cut traffic in London by 36 per cent over a decade.

In a pilot project in Oregon, drivers subjected to higher per-mile charges during peak times responded by reducing driving at those times by 22 per cent, relative to those paying a flat rate.

Becker said a tolling structure could start with putting smaller tolls on bridges, then expand to roads.

“We don’t even have a committee structure that would talk about this.”

In August, Pitt Meadows received the support of both Maple Ridge and Port Coquitlam in asking for tolls to be reduced for the Golden Ears and Port Mann bridges while repairs are underway to the Pattulo.

That could demonstrate how lower tolls could result in higher use of the bridges.

However, numbers could be skewed because the test takes place when the Pattulo is closed, forcing an usually larger number of vehicles to use either one of the other bridges.

All three mayors signed the letter Aug. 31, addressed to Gregor Robertson, chair of the Mayor’s Council on Regional Transportation.

“Let’s see if we can use the toll to get more people off the Lougheed and off the Mary Hill Bypass on to the Golden Ears Bridge and on to the Port Mann Bridge,” Becker said.

Reducing the bridge tolls could be revenue neutral. Dropping the tolls means less earned per vehicle. However, an increasing volume of traffic could balance that out.

It currently costs commuters with transponders in their vehicles, $3.10 for each crossing of the Golden Ears Bridge.

Becker said the mayor’s transportation plan that was defeated in the referendum remains intact, only awaiting a solution to a source for regional funding in order to access senior government money.

One element included an express bus from downtown Maple Ridge, through Pitt Meadows to the new Evergreen line SkyTrain in Coquitlam.

However, that, along with dozens of other transportation improvements have been shelved indefinitely.

“There’s an obligation on the politicians to get their house in order to deal with people’s perceptions that TransLink is out of touch and out of control,” Becker said.

“I don’t agree with that, but I heard it time and again during the referendum.”

Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows Liberal MLA Doug Bing said road tolling has been tried in other parts of the world. “Any time you make any major change, there’s a lot of opposition.”

He favours a pilot project to see if it works.

“We can already see from the tolling we have, that people are looking for alternatives.”

Bing recognized that it would first have to pass in a referendum.

“It’s a tough sell, no question.”

Metro residents voted by a 62 per cent margin against a 0.5 per cent sales tax earlier this year.

Maple Ridge deputy mayor Tyler Shymkiw said for road pricing to work there must be transportation alternatives and there are none in Maple Ridge.

“You can push people off the roads, but you have to be pushing them on to something else.”

Surrey has SkyTrain, but Maple Ridge has only the five times daily West Coast Express.

“We don’t even have a rapid bus service at this point,” he said.

If another referendum failed, “It’s obviously still within the power of the province to implement something. At this point, the Mayor’s Council needs to come up with a bit of a plan, post the last one,” defeated in the spring plebiscite.

– with files from Black Press