Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

How to pay for transportation

with 17 comments

Yesterday there was a short sound bite of mine on the six o’clock tv news from CBC Vancouver. You might have been blinking and missed it. One of the reasons I have a blog at all is to try and add something to the mainstream media coverage of issues around transportation and land use in this region. As with so many things, the “need” to spend a lot of time on really important topics, like hockey, Justin Bieber and the ability of a computer to answer trivia questions faster than humans means that the CBC really cannot deal properly with other issues.

It started with the news that Translink is going to have to pay the contractor who runs the Golden Ears Bridge a lot of money ($63 million) as the tolls collected from drivers are not as much as expected. Ken Hardie, Translink’s spin doctor in chief got a few seconds prior to this story to assure the taxpayers that they will not be coming to them for more. “…a deficit we will be able to cover through savings, through other capital programs and reserves.” He did not get to broadcast saying what that means exactly. But to give you some idea, there are now a bunch of buses stored at Oakridge out of use. (See my comment below the image for why this is interesting)

Leah Hendry then did a piece about what other places do – with Anthony Perl advocating road pricing, and clips of the London congestion charge and so on. My bit was reduced to the suggestion that we should try distance based car insurance and increasing parking charges – which might seem a bit odd if you don’t read here regularly. If you do, you do not need to read any further, as you know all this, but in case you are new here please stick with me.

Leah and I had an interesting conversation on the phone before the interview. We talked about why the toll had not worked – and why the Golden Ears bridge was fundamentally ill conceived. People grumbled a bit about having to wait for the Albion Ferry  – but it was still better than driving to either of the nearest alternates. Increasing capacity on the ferries would have been difficult – because of lack of space at each end to queue up vehicles. And there was no room to turn a bus around at the Fort Langley end.  Translink had a big capital projects department anxious to be seen to be doing something, but the planners at the GVRD and at Translink did not see this crossing as a huge issue. Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows being outside the growth concentration area, there were many more pressing issues than a four sailing wait for a short ferry ride for a few people. But the very odd tolling policies of the province meant that Translink could build new bridges if they could be paid for with tolls. Tolls could not be applied to existing facilities.

Road pricing has always made eminent sense. Currently we have the “all you can eat buffet” paid for from a variety of sources most of which have little or nothing to do with road use, and none that vary by time of day. But road space is a very time sensitive “perishable” commodity. At peak periods people line up for it. At other times, much capacity goes unused. Prices can be used to adjust demand to fit available space better. That’s what airlines do – and in other countries like Britain the railways do it too. But road pricing is a difficult thing to persuade people to accept, firstly because they confuse construction and use: “We’ve already paid for the road” and secondly because they are feeling the pinch financially. Leah asked me why, and I said it was because while taxes have declined (mostly for the well off) fees and charges have increased. In fact, the way government collects money has become regressive with the majority paying much more to the benefit of the well off minority. Road pricing would fit very well into such an approach: it would hit people with little money but time to waste very hard, and get them to change their road use habits so that those with money could get where they are going much quicker.

On the other hand, if you used the revenues from road user charges for transportation in general rather than just for building more roads, then the impact could be significantly different. We already know that transit uses space much more efficiently than cars. In fact while taxes on things like gas do not come anywhere near the cost of building and using roads, the general belief of road users is that they are not subsidized while transit, bikes and pedestrians are. This, of course, is the opposite of the reality. A strip of concrete 3m wide (a lane of highway) can carry around 1,000 cars an hour – 2,000 if it is a freeway. At current average occupancy that’s 1,300 people per hour (pph) for an urban road with intersections. Surface transit systems easily carry 10 times that number, where there is enough demand. Or, as Gordon Campbell put it so memorably, the Canada Line is the equivalent of ten lanes of freeway. Which makes anyone with their head screwed on wonder why he was so determined to widen Highway #1 – which costs much more and will carry much less. If you count people and not cars.

Transit, bikes and walking are also much better at getting us the sort of place we need – what we used to call “livability” but now call “sustainability”. Even if every car were zero emission, automobiles impose huge costs on society not the least of which is suburban sprawl. We are going to need every inch of available land for agriculture. Indeed spiralling food prices are one of the main drivers of the current unrest seen across the world – most effectively so far in Tunisia and Egypt. Peak oil is now something that even the Saudis (in secret) and Shell acknowledge – and building the infrastructure for cars that don’t use oil is going to require huge amounts of oil!

In this region we already had plans in place that would have been a good start towards sustainability. We were protecting agricultural land, building complete communities in a compact urban area and we were supposed to be increasing transportation choices. But then we elected the BC Liberals and they have been working hard to reverse all that – with visible impacts all over the region. The short period of the winter Olympics last year was merely the Potemkin village for  media consumption: immediately afterwards transit contracted again, and the road building continued.

My remarks were aimed at what we could have done. I talked about what Copenhagen has been doing for the last forty years – reducing the amount  of space dedicated to moving and parking cars in the urban area. About how improving facilities for movement without cars (more transit, more bike lanes, more pedestrian areas and sidewalks) has to happen before you try to get people to use them more. So that is where the bit about distance based insurance and parking charges come in – those are the easy first steps. Road pricing will take longer and cost more to set up, and could be offset by reducing other imposts  to make it more palatable to introduce. But like the carbon tax needs to bite to have any effect on behaviour. And it has to be part of a concerted policy. Not the current one – which is to make BC more attractive to corporations. But to serve the people of BC better – and to ensure that our children and grand children have a future.

That may seem a long way from not enough tolls to pay for a bridge, but it is all connected, and not in a way you can talk about in a matter of a few seconds. Which is why you read blogs and do not rely on tv news alone.

17 Responses

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  1. Eloquently put.

    Reverend Twowheeler

    February 17, 2011 at 1:57 pm

  2. Excellent post—thanks!

    Typo: ‘But like the carbon tax needs [TO] bite to have any effect on behaviour. ’

    Dominic Brown

    February 17, 2011 at 5:28 pm

  3. […] How to pay for transportation « Stephen Rees's blog Local transportation pundit Stephen Rees gives a nice, concise overview of the problems of and solutions to moving people around the Lower Mainland. (tags: transportation vancouver) […]

  4. But the GEB has been planned in the LRSP since the 1990s. With the the GEB, containers can go from the pitt meadows intermodal yard directly to Hwy 1.

    I find the low usage encouraging for the effects of tolling in vancouver. If anything, i think a new equilibrium will happen once the port mann bridge tolls are implemented. perhaps we will see less traffic on the PMB with a slight balancing rise on the GEB.

    the GEB also provides a test lab for tolling – so far people in the region have buy-in and increasing familiarity which will only spread with the tolled PMB. the recent political blow-back with vancouver’s dedicated bike lanes on vision vancouver would unfortunately make politicans gun-shy for rapid change.

    But i hope more of that change is coming… =)


    February 17, 2011 at 10:41 pm

  5. […] A first taste of Vancouver, Part I [MetroTHINK] How to pay for transportation [Stephen Rees's […]

    re:place Magazine

    February 18, 2011 at 8:42 am

  6. Mezzanine

    I disagree. There is a line on a map that suggests the addition of HOV capacity but it was deliberately left open as to type of facility and precise route. The plan is also silent on priorities but clearly was not needed as a high priority. It just happened to be something that appeared to be fundable and wasn’t. The number of road borne containers cannot justify any facility – and in the case you cite there are more direct routes. Over the new Pitt River Bridge and down the Mary Hill by pass being the most obvious.

    What this project ought to be is a lesson in the futility of P3s. No risk was transferred to the private sector, but our transit system is now to be robbed to prop up the bridge builder.

    Stephen Rees

    February 18, 2011 at 12:54 pm

  7. From what I could find about the LRSP [1], there is a line that goes from langley tot Maple ridge marked as a ‘new or upgraded regional connector’ for goods movement and inclusion of an HOV lane.

    WRT routing of containers, and taking the mary hill, it depends where they are going. if they are going to/coming from south to the USA truck crossing or up the valley or further east then the GEB would be ++ faster.

    WRT ” The number of road borne containers cannot justify any facility” it depends on how you view the port as a driver of the economy. If anything, IMO the SOV is more of a threat to liveability and our local environment that container truck traffic, which is why i support tolling for most routes in the GVRD.


    February 18, 2011 at 3:16 pm

  8. mezzanine

    February 18, 2011 at 3:17 pm

  9. In kind of perverse logic I see the creation of more road space via this bridge as an opportunity to take it away in future for other more efficient uses. BRT or possibly LRT may make sense one day between SoF and NoF communities in this quadrant of the Fraser Valley. It seems the conversion of two lanes won’t hurt that bad.

    Moreover, when the impact of tolls are added to the escalating price of petroleum fuels within the budgets of families and businesses who choose to locate there, the lack of adequate, forward-looking planning is as evident as the blinding un-natural whiteness of politician’s teeth.


    February 22, 2011 at 10:58 am

  10. I’m sure you realize this kind of stuff gets endlessly talked about on SSP.

    The thing no one has a rebuttal to is why isn’t a gas tax an effective means of road pricing? As is, the magnitude of the tax is the problem. It takes far less effort for this to be changed to have same effect as road pricing; all without having to invent legislation to allow road pricing or having to make the investment to construct the infrastructure to make it happen. While EV users would get off scot free, I don’t think that’s necessarily bad.

    Alex MacKinnon

    February 23, 2011 at 1:55 am

  11. What is SSP?

    Gas tax is not road pricing. Gas tax does vary with mileage, but also with style of driving and size of vehicle – and current levels of gas tax have done little to encourage either observance of speed limits or purchase of smaller vehicles. But the critical point of my piece was that pricing has to be sensitive to location and time of day if it is to tackle congestion and – where there are alternatives – mode choice. If every vehicle were an EV we would have the same problems of urban sprawl and traffic congestion we have today.

    Stephen Rees

    February 23, 2011 at 11:13 am

  12. SSP is a forum. Basically chronicles and endlessly discusses most of what goes on in Vancouver in the building/transport/politics side of things.

    Driven cost varies greatly with where you’re going. If you’ve ever driven a car with an average fuel consumption gauge you’d find quite quickly that in periods of congestion most cars other than hybrids generally take a rather large hit on fuel economy. My car generally burns about 1.5x the gas per km while downtown as it would driving around East Van or the suburbs, and about double what it would in a steady cruise on the highway or driving in the city at night. While not perfect, it’s a form of road pricing which depends heavily on current volumes and usage.

    Fuel consumption also goes up with speed, but again this is an aside. Most cars generally hit optimal efficiency at 80km/h due to the additional efficiency of operating in a higher gear, which is not quite overcome by added drag from speed.

    Current gas tax levels aren’t what I’m advocating for here, but in the last 3 years we’ve the collapse of the most of the Detriot auto industry because they failed to anticipate demand for shrinking car sizes. Most SUVs have become Crossovers (which are a huge step in the right direction), Ford is rolling out the Fiesta, Chevy the Spark and Chrysler is bringing out the Fiat 500. All these are signs that the market is now trending downwards into smaller cars.

    The EV point is also a wild fantasy. The US wants wants 15% of SOVs to be electric by 2020; pessimists say that 5% marketshare is more likely. I’d say anything to discourage oil consumption is probably a good thing in this case, even if it means giving a small portion of users a tax exemption for a decade or two.

    I say follow the KISS rule.

    Alex MacKinnon

    February 24, 2011 at 6:16 am

  13. I forgot to also mention regarding speed, that really nothing gets people to drive the speed limit unless you change the road geometry. It’s pretty hard to change this even if you make people think they’re going to get caught, like the UK has done with speed cameras.

    I also don’t think speed nannying should be justified by transit budget shortfalls.

    Alex MacKinnon

    February 24, 2011 at 6:23 am

  14. This would be the best way to pay for transportation infrastructure: Land Value Capture for Infrastructure

    Jeff Dean

    February 24, 2011 at 4:50 pm

  15. […] but because the traffic through their tunnel was less than expected. This is in contrast to the Golden Ears story, where Translink failed to transfer the revenue risk, and is now on the hook for the shortfall in […]

  16. A very informative link, Jeff.

    What I like about land value capture is that it takes some of the financial burden off the taxpayer without resorting to a P3, which ends up costing users more in the long run.

    Without, for example, a public transit “stimulus package” the private land value would not have occurred. Therefore, it stands the test of reason that a portion of the land lift be taken by the public agency, just as a private developer would do to maintain profits.

    Moreover, in the link the revenue is stretched over a period of time and protects the majority of the land lift benefit to the private land owner. It also helps keep the transit fares lower.

    The difference in Hong Kong is that MRTC owns the land and / or development rights adjacent to stations. While the return on the investment is very high funds a very efficient subway network with little public help, I don’t believe we’re ready for the densities and developer fallout here with that model. Therein I think only a portion of the land lift value should be taken by the public transit agency in any funding model used here.


    March 1, 2011 at 1:12 pm

  17. You can expect road pricing to go over like a lead balloon to the public. Even the soon to be NDP government wouldn’t be foolish enough to stick their necks out and push for that kind of idea.

    Much like most growth in the region should it occur will be south of the fraser – regardless of who is in office.


    October 12, 2012 at 1:41 pm

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