Report revs up debate on road pricing

The Pattullo Bridge will be among three of five major Fraser crossings with tolls in the years ahead, leaving just the Alex Fraser and Deas Tunnel free.

By Jeff Nagel – BC Local News

TransLink’s independent commissioner is throwing his weight behind calls to impose road pricing to suck more cash out of drivers for transportation upgrades and steer them towards transit.

Martin Crilly, in a report on TransLink’s proposed 10-year plan options, says it’s time to take greater control of road use with prices.

He doesn’t spell out how how such a system could work, but the concept of a comprehensive system of road and bridge tolling has been in area plans for at least 15 years.

“If well-designed, these [mechanisms] can improve the utilization of all forms of shared transport, notably public transit as provided by TransLink, control traffic congestion and improve the overall efficiency of the urban system,” his report said.

In an interview, Crilly said the lack of other funding sources and the escalating costs of adding more transit service to capture additional riders and fare revenue is going to force a new look at the issue.

With tolls now on the Golden Ears Bridge and coming to the Port Mann and Pattullo, he notes only two of five major Fraser River crossings (the Alex Fraser Bridge and Deas Tunnel) would remain free in the years ahead.

“The system is going to be forced into some sort of coherent tolling strategy,” he said. “Otherwise you’re going to get diversion of traffic trying to avoid tolls, which is ultimately inefficient.”

Martin Crilly

While favoured by many transportation policy experts, road pricing or regional tolling has always hit a brick wall of public opposition.

Provincial politicians from both the Liberals and NDP have said they couldn’t contemplate it until transit offers a much more viable alternative to driving, particularly in underserved areas.

But Crilly argues that chicken-or-egg problem no longer applies.

“We’ve had a big boost in transit supply,” he said, pointing to the Canada Line opening and the increase in the bus fleet. “I’m saying ‘Done now.'”

He admits there are transit service inequities in the region, with the South of Fraser particularly underserved, but maintains road pricing is a good strategy to pursue.

Time-of-day pricing is one option whereby tolls would be cheaper or even free at off-peak hours to encourage commuters to find ways to shift trips out of rush hour and get trucks to deliver goods at night.

“On efficiency grounds alone, one really has to look at this,” Crilly said,

He argues TransLink’s planned vehicle levy – which would be cheaper for fuel efficient cars and more expensive for gas guzzlers – was a missed opportunity.

TransLink could have developed a system to monitor each driver’s annual kilometres travelled and add that component, charging a steeper levy for those who drive a lot, and less for those who drive little.

“People will respond if they can save a lot of money by driving less,” Crilly predicts.

And he says it would only be a “short step” to roll insurance premiums into the same program, making motorists pay based on how far they travel.

TransLink has said it cannot get sufficient funds from its existing sources to meet what it says are the region’s long-term needs to keep pace with growth and maintain livability.

It identified road pricing as a key mechanism Victoria could approve to supply more money.

Crilly has meanwhile advised area mayors TransLink’s large $450-million package of upgrades isn’t a legal option.

He says there are too many question marks hanging over the financing of that scenario – which left a $175-million hole for the province to fill, potentially by okaying road pricing.

Mayors will instead choose in the weeks ahead between approving a $275-million package of tax and fee hikes they can control (including a vehicle levy averaging $122 per car) and a more modest $130-million funding increase from a three-cent gas tax hike, higher fares and higher taxes on pay parking.

The pay parking tax is now to be repealed as part of B.C.’s move to a PST, but Crilly’s report was finalized before the change was announced and doesn’t discuss the resulting funding gap.

Unless the province agrees to make up lost parking tax funding, mayors only be able to accept a “base case” that freezes funding and triggers drastic service cuts.

Crilly says that would be “clearly unpalatable.”

Elimination of the $450-million plan effectively sidelines the Evergreen Line as well as other rapid transit extensions in Surrey and Vancouver, at least temporarily.

Because TransLink’s 10-year plan is a rolling document renewed each year, a new and more ambitious version – with enough funding for the Evergreen Line and possibly other lines – could still be hatched next year or later.

Crilly found TransLink is right to make preserving and upgrading the existing transit service its top priority – ahead of costly expansions such as the Evergreen Line.

The province says it remains committed to the Evergreen Line and TransLink officials say they want to find ways to keep it advancing.

Crilly also found TransLink can jack fares up to 3.5 per cent next year to fund its 10-year plan, but is withholding approval for now on increases envisioned in later years until he sees better evidence that climbing costs are being contained.

It has become more and more costly, he says, to “buy new riders” by adding expensive service, particularly in low density parts of the region where buses tend to run near empty.

Building light rail lines instead of SkyTrain would also be cheaper, he notes.

Declining revenue from fuel taxes is a big risk going forward.

If Metro Vancouver fuel consumption drops 22 per cent by 2019, as projected by TransLink due to factors such as a shift toward electric cars, Crilly estimates the resulting loss of gas tax revenue could add up to as much as $390 million over the 10-year period of the plan.

He also suggests TransLink may be too conservative in its forecasts of future interest rates but may underestimate how rapidly labour costs will rise.

Real estate profits – one avenue the province had hoped would help bail out TransLink – are unlikely to generate big bucks, Crilly found.

Making money from real estate investment along future transit corridors depends on a long lead time and TransLink has no cash to use as seed money.

“Most rapid transit routes are either known or traverse an area with high property prices,” the report adds.

Crilly also said he’s “concerned” that TransLink may have oversold the benefits of the most costly and aggressive transit expansion in fighting climate change.

The Provincial Transit Plan calls for transit expansion to increase transit use from 12 per cent of weekday trips here now to 17 per cent by 2020 and 22 per cent by 2030.

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