Opinion

COLUMN: Border toll defender calls 'dumbest' idea award a compliment

The notion of imposing a toll on vehicles crossing the U.S. border was sharply criticized, but the planner behind the idea defends it.  - Dan Ferguson / Langley Times
The notion of imposing a toll on vehicles crossing the U.S. border was sharply criticized, but the planner behind the idea defends it.
— image credit: Dan Ferguson / Langley Times

By Eric Doherty

Sometimes, when you consider the source, a scathing attack should actually be seen as a compliment. As such, I am greatly honoured that Jordan Bateman awarded me with “dumbest public policy suggestion of 2013” in his op-ed (TransLink border tax idea should be deported, Dec 19, 2013).

The suggestion that provoked such outrage from Bateman is to fund transit improvements, and reduce the leakage of transit and carbon tax revenue, with a toll on B.C. vehicles crossing the border from the Lower Mainland to Washington State. According to Sightline Institute researcher Clark Williams-Derry, a modest of $2.50 toll each way would bring in about $30 million a year for transit in our region. It would also discourage the waste of fuel caused by people driving out of their way to avoid paying B.C. carbon and transit taxes on gasoline.

To appreciate how great a compliment this award is, consider that in 2007 Bateman was one of the leading voices in Get Moving BC calling for shoveling billions of dollars out of the public purse towards a long and seemingly random list of freeway, bridge and transit mega projects.

At the time, I was working with the Livable Region Coalition on ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from transportation in an affordable manner, while improving the quality of life in our communities. Our key slogan – Better Transit Not Freeways – reflects the simple fact that roads and transit complete for the same public funds and we have to live within our means. It also expresses the imperative to shift from carbon intensive freeways to low-carbon public transit. Then climate seemed like an important issue, but now it is clear that climate is the defining ethical issue of our time.

Now with a new employer, Bateman strangely does not want to pay for the transit he wanted to shovel billions towards only a few years ago. Bateman is now working for the Canadian Taxpayers Federation (CTF) – one of Canada’s loudest voices against action on climate change. Bateman and the CTF have tried to kill BC’s carbon tax rather than improving it by using the revenue to fund transit and passenger rail. In a 2010 interview with the Halifax Media Coop the group’s then Federal Director Kevin Gaudet, said “We don’t believe there’s such thing as man-made climate change.” The CTF can be counted on to heap scorn on any proposal to invest public funds to reduce GHG emissions. Bateman and the CTF will likely lead the ‘no’ side in the November 2014 referendum on transit funding in Metro Vancouver.

Given that a time-consuming legal review will be required before a border toll can be implemented, it almost certainly won’t be on the November ballot. But given the climate crisis, it is essential that we provide ways for people to get around and avoid burning so much fossil fuel. Taxes on high-carbon fuels to provide better low-carbon transit is one of the better ways to accomplish this, and a border toll is an effective mechanism to reduce carbon tax avoidance.

Our whole transit system is overloaded as people vote with their feet for low-carbon (and more affordable) transportation while funding lags behind demand. Our transit system is in such dire financial straits that HandyDART service levels have been frozen since 2009, despite a soaring population of older seniors. This has led to HandyDART trip denials increasing by over 600 per cent in only five years. In contrast, automobile traffic on many routes, including the Port Mann Bridge and the Massey Tunnel, has been declining for years.

In Vancouver, where I live, it is possible to think of rising carbon levels in the atmosphere as a future environmental issue. But rural communities are already losing jobs because of the trees killed by the pine beetle, which is directly linked to rising temperatures. Burning fossil fuels, such as gasoline and diesel, has also already made B.C. sea water so acidic that oysters cannot reproduce. Oyster farmers now have to raise oysters in tanks of treated water until they are old enough to survive the acidic ocean water. Action to reduce carbon emissions is action to protect the economic future of communities in B.C. and around the planet.

Increasing funding for transit is one of the smartest public policy ideas around. And I look forward to hearing more compliments from Bateman and the CTF in the run up to the November 2014 transit referendum.


Eric Doherty is the principal of Ecopath Planning. He's on Twitter @Eric_Doherty

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