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Road tolls throughout Metro Vancouver under consideration

All motorists could be paying to drive any significant distance in Metro Vancouver if a road pricing scheme is eventually adopted.  - File
All motorists could be paying to drive any significant distance in Metro Vancouver if a road pricing scheme is eventually adopted.
— image credit: File

Drivers who never cross a bridge would still have to pay tolls if a road pricing system now under consideration is adopted in Metro Vancouver to fund TransLink.

The idea, emerging as the preferred longer-term solution to reform how the region pays for public transit and roads, does not simply mean slapping tolls on all existing bridges and tunnels.

Instead, Mayors' Council on Regional Transportation chair Richard Walton favours a coordinated and fair system of road use fees across the region using a large number of detection points where passing vehicles would be sensed by cameras or perhaps transponder chips built into licence plates.

"Those might well be bridges and tunnels," Walton said. "But that can also happen at points on the freeway between interchanges. It can happen at intersections."

Area mayors admit road pricing is too technically complex to implement quickly enough to help TransLink raise more money it needs by 2013.

It's also politically explosive and expected to require years of public consultation.

So road pricing won't be among new funding tools the mayors want the provincial government to enable through legislation this spring, although those options are also controversial.

The ones rated most feasible include a new regional carbon tax applying only in Metro Vancouver or a car levy, which TransLink has previously contemplated and could be either a flat annual fee on each registered vehicle, or it could vary based on the vehicle's emissions or the owner's proximity to public transit.

A regional sales tax with a suggested rate of 0.6 per cent or an employer payroll tax of $30 to $90 per employee each year are also possibilities.

The mayors meet Transportation Minister Blair Lekstrom March 7 to consider at least 20 different options, set out in a confidential analysis of a Joint Technical Committee that consists of TransLink and ministry representatives.

"We're making sure we analyze as much as we can and as deep as we can so the mayors council has the broadest range of possible options in front of it," said Langley City Mayor Peter Fassbender, vice-chair of the mayors council.

Road pricing is particularly tricky because it would require the province to alter its tolling policy that bans tolls on existing infrastructure, and requires motorists have a reasonable free alternative when new or expanded facilities that are tolled.

Premier Christy Clark said earlier this month her government has no plans to alter the provincial tolling policy.

Fairness is a key consideration driving the look at road pricing.

Surrey motorists are incensed that once tolls of at least $3 hit the new Port Mann Bridge in December their city will have no free route across the Fraser River except for the aging Pattullo Bridge, which is also to be rebuilt and tolled by 2018.

Several mayors and some business leaders have suggested much lower tolls instead be applied at all crossings in the region, to fix the inequity of piecemeal tolling and avoid inefficient traffic distortions from motorists detouring to avoid tolls.

The technical committee's report to the Mayors' Council reportedly suggests a $1.60 toll at major bridges and tunnels could raise at least $100 million a year.

But Walton said a bridges-only system of tolling would simply extend Surrey's unfair treatment to other parts of the region, like the North Shore and especially Richmond, which is ringed by bridges and tunnels.

Meanwhile, drivers who stay on the Burrard Peninsula or South of the Fraser could travel large distances without paying.

Walton said a comprehensive road pricing system would be better because it could capture all lengthy trips – like ones from Port Coquitlam to UBC or Fort Langley to White Rock.

The mayors and many transportation experts favour revenue sources like road pricing that are tied to transportation because they don't just raise money but also shape residents' behaviour – encouraging them to drive less, take transit more and live where they can take more trips by foot or bike.

Moreover, road pricing could allow time-of-day tolling are possible that reduce congestion and make more efficient use of roads by encouraging motorists to shift to off-peak hours.

"You can structure distance pricing so that if you travel to work before 6:30 in the morning, it's free," Walton said. "Or if you're travelling with three or more people it's free.

"You can make it possible so people can slightly shift their travel patterns and pay nothing. So it's not just a matter of everybody paying a lot more."

He notes other variants of road pricing are possible, including High Occupancy/Tolled lanes, where motorists willing to pay a toll can use what are otherwise HOV lanes.

"It's our long-term goal to have some kind of distance-pricing mechanism that's based on very fair principles."

Other transportation-related fees are under consideration, but a briefing to Metro mayors shows all have a variety of weaknesses.

The parking sales tax, which adds 21 per cent to pay parking fees, could be raised higher. That, however, is seen as unfair to downtown Vancouver, home to most pay lots.

Further increases in the gas tax are an option, although TransLink considers that source increasingly unpredictable. It also fails to capture the growing numbers of electric cars or motorists who drive to the Fraser Valley or the U.S. to buy gas.

Transit fares could be hiked further – a 12.5 per cent increase is already slated for next year, pending a review – but charging too much will erode ridership and send passengers back to their cars.

TransLink Commissioner Martin Crilly, who also supports a serious look at road pricing, suggests either a vehicle levy or a lower toll rate on all the region's bridges and tunnels could be an interim step.

The Mayors Council last fall approved a broad-based transit expansion plan, including construction of the Evergreen Line to Coquitlam.

About half of the extra $70 million a year required to fund the plan comes from a two-cent raise in the region's gas tax – to 17 cents a litre – effective April 1.

But the rest must come from another source that mayors and the province must have in place by the end of this year or else a property tax hike averaging $23 per home applies in 2013 and 2014.

The mayors aim to fill not just that short-term gap – and avoid the property tax hike – but secure much more funding for TransLink to support further transit expansion, including potential new rapid transit lines in Surrey to Langley or White Rock and in Vancouver along the Broadway corridor to UBC.

Besides road pricing, options before the mayors and Lekstrom also include a benefitting area tax that applies to properties that gain value when a transit line is built nearby, a flat levy per property going to TransLink or new charges developers must pay to subdivide land or build new projects.

Another option is an annual levy on all parking stalls across the region, including free ones. That would resurrect a former parking stall tax that was killed by former Transportation Minister Kevin Falcon when he restructured TransLink in 2007.

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