Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Debate continues in Vancouver about road pricing

I wrote a few weeks ago about how Vancouver is now having an active debate about the future role of tolling and road pricing in raising revenue and managing traffic in the city.  Unlike some other cities, where discussions appears to involve a large vocal and dismissive opposition to any form of tolls, it appears the debate here is more measured.  Those raising concerns are doing so whilst making some useful points, around equity and what money should be spent on.

Most recently , Frank Bucholtz editor of the Langley Times but writing for Peace Arch News says that
Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts advocates a distance based charge. Apparently, she anticipates that such a system would allow for a reduction in gas taxes, and if drivers see that those who drive the most actually pay the most, many of then will likely support such a system. 

This is the key point.  Talking openly about reducing other taxes changes the terms of the debate, which all too often will face opposition for simply charging more.  Bucholtz also notes proposals for distance based charging in Washington State (USA), which could provide a model on the doorstep of British Columbia.  Key to his article is noting that whilst many know of the London congestion charge, it is very important for the public and officials to be aware of many other options.

In the Vancouver Sun, Gordon Price, director of the City Program at Simon Fraser University, argues for a more comprehensive road pricing strategy than tolling the bridges (the obvious easy option). He says the reasons are: 

- The need for revenue to maintain the transport network the city needs. 

- Tolling bridges alone is inequitable. 

He advocates that Vancouver should look at the pilot trial to distance based charging being considered in Oregon. He says it allows charging by place, time and distance, although that misconstrues what is happening there – as it is just about a distance based tax for electric, hybrid and plug-in hybrid vehicles to supplement the fuel tax. However, in the context of Vancouver, having distance based charging would and should allow for differentiation by route and time of day.  This is exactly what is being considered in Singapore at present, and I have long held the view that this is the path towards the least distorting, and most economically efficient form of pricing.   Charging individual routes or cordons alone are very much second best options for many cities.

The big question is how to get to that point, as I believe it will need to involve a pilot, and incentivising people from paying fuel tax to paying by distance.  

Meanwhile, Vancouver does need to think about how it spends any money collected.  A letter to the editor of Tri-city News suggests that road pricing is about propping up the subsidised SkyTrain.  This suggests how important it is for those advocating road pricing to get support for what they are going to spend the revenue on.  It is, after all, the inevitable and inescapable question that gets asked of those advocating road pricing.

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