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Road pricing viable but tricky in Metro Vancouver: Experts

Expect insurmountable public opposition to a strategy of simply slapping tolls on existing bridges to fund TransLink.

But charging every driver a lower and more broadly based charge on each kilometre travelled might work in Metro Vancouver – especially if it's offset by a cut in some existing taxes.

That was some of the advice Metro Vancouver leaders heard Thursday from a panel of international experts at a forum on regional tolling organized by Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts.

A road pricing system could include free home zones for motorists, who wouldn't pay per kilometre charges until they cross a zone boundary into a different city.

Someone in Surrey could drive within Surrey "all day long" but only pay if they cross a zone boundary into New Westminster, suggested Jack Opiola, a Virginia-based road tolling and transport policy consultant.

"When I leave my home zone and travel into somebody else's I know I pay a fee," he said. "That way everybody pays their fair share."

Ideally, panelists said, road pricing could substitute for much of the existing gas tax, which is declining anyway, and possibly even reduce property tax a bit.

"It's going to be a tough sell to say we're going to keep taxing you on your gas and ask you to pay a per-mile charge," said Edward Regan, a transportation and tolling policy authority from Connecticut. "But if it's one instead of the other that's certainly much more viable."

The push by mayors towards road-use charges here springs from both TransLink's troubled quest for sustainable funding and a growing sense among civic leaders that tolling just a couple of bridges is unfair and may inefficiently distort traffic patterns.

Most other jurisdictions are grappling with some of the same challenges as TransLInk, particularly a gas tax that raises less money for transit each year as vehicles get more efficient and more electric cars hit the road.

Panelists said several U.S. jurisdictions – from Washington's Puget Sound to Los Angeles – are contemplating a shift to forms of road pricing, typically by charging a a few cents per mile travelled.

Regan said it's also wise to find ways to provide benefits to drivers, rather than merely a high-tech method to take their money.

He said GPS-based systems to charge road usage fees can also be used to advise drivers on less-congested alternate routes, or perhaps guide them to a free parking spot and automatically pay for it.

In Dallas-Fort Worth, he said, tolls on planned new express lanes will vary by route and change according to congestion levels, in an effort to ensure those lanes are free flowing. Drivers will get a toll rebate if traffic fails to flow at a guaranteed minimum speed.

Even with the best ideas in play, panelists warned the policy road to toll systems is littered with failed efforts, including New York City's aborted attempt to introduce a London-style congestion charge.

Opialo said a potential move to a road usage charge being studied in Washington State would also charge B.C. drivers who nip across the border to buy gas – if the measure is enacted.

Puget Sound estimates it could rake in $34 billion over 20 years through road usage fees it aims to put on every route in the region, said Mark Hallenback, director of the Washington State Transportation Centre.

"The numbers are enormous," he said. "The problem is that comes from someone. It's not magic money. It comes from a public which is not at all convinced that they should be giving that to you."

Hallenback also suggested significantly cutting back TransLink's 17-cent-a-litre gas tax, which raises about $330 million a year, if road pricing was imposed here, adding fewer drivers would cross the border to fill up.

"All those people no longer going over to Blaine, they're buying it with the Canadian taxes on it. You might not even lose that much money."

Other methods of easing the pain to motorists could include a $5 maximum cap on tolls paid in a day, or a certain number of free kilometres a day before tolls apply, the forum heard.

The real question, Hallenback said, is whether the scheme can generate net new money for transit expansion, how much more local residents can afford to pay and whether they support the vision for an improved system.

Other challenges include assuring drivers a GPS-based system won't precisely track their cars' movements.

Road pricing has benefits other tax methods – like property tax – can't deliver, the forum heard.

It puts a direct price on putting a key in an ignition and driving away, which too many motorists view as essentially free, aside from gas.

"You level the playing field, making transit more competitive with driving," Regan said.

By deterring some car trips, normally gridlocked bridges and other routes can also become free flowing, especially if rates vary by time of day to encourage more people to travel at off-peak hours.

"You're never going to get people to shift away from using their car to the train using property tax," Regan added.

Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts said Metro leaders need to continue to explore road pricing options.

"It reinforces that the road map in front of us currently is not sustainable," she said. 
"We need to be looking at something else."

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