Wednesday, April 4, 2012

For whom the bridge tolls

Tolls again are being suggested to help pay for new costs for Victoria’s Johnson St. Bridge project.  It’s a bad idea and wouldn’t likely work even if funding partners allowed for them in the city’s partnership agreements.

The federal government provided $21 million in “Build Canada” funding for what is now a $93 million dollar project.  Another $16.5 million recently came from federal gas tax transfers back to the province and local governments for programs that support sustainable transportation infrastructure – key features of the new bridge.  Tolls are not supported in the Build Canada funding and it raises issues also for the gas tax funds.  While the city is on the hook for $49 million, and is understandably interested in the revenue, other funders would lay their own claims to any new revenue to reduce their costs. 

The real problem with bridge tolls is more complex, especially in a city like Victoria.  There are so many idiosyncrasies of place that what might be a solution in one city will fall short of expectations somewhere else and that’s particularly so in Victoria where we do not have a grid pattern transportation network.

There are several approaches to tolling, and at least a few that I am aware of that are instructive for our situation here.  Here are some thoughts on some of those approaches that could be deal breakers for tolls on the bridge, even if the funding agreements allowed for them.

First, there are those tolls that provide an advantage to drivers – they allow them to purchase road services to speed up their trip or pay for shortcuts that will free them from the congestion of everyday traffic.  Toronto has one in Highway 407 that cuts across the north end of the city, cutting travel times for those willing to pay and making goods movement more efficient for the trucking industry, which has a bottom line interest in paying to save time.  Time is money and time spent in traffic is very unproductive, so buying time returns a real benefit.

The tolls may pay for the basic infrastructure but everyone else picks up the tab for externalities.  Police, fire, emergency services, sprawling development etc., are all costs that private roads use, but don’t pay for.  Once off the toll road, drivers have to find their way through traffic on the public road system like everyone else, but at least for some of their trip, time and money have been saved.  What it doesn’t account for is the induced traffic affect.  Expanding road capacity, public or private, makes it more attractive to drive and the impacts are felt everywhere, including across the public road system that the toll road feeds into.

Another problem of private toll systems is the sense of entitlement.  Those who pay for the roads get to use them and typically they exclude traffic they don’t want to see on the roads, like cyclists or pedestrians (not that they would want to use the 407 but tolling our bridge, for example, would certainly generate pressure to expand or improve vehicle capacity at the expense of other users who might not be paying).  Toll highways are very much designed for homogeneous users, not for diverse travel needs.  They suck up transportation dollars for capital costs and maintenance of the toll facility.  More broadly based road pricing schemes will draw from the same pockets, but invest in more equitable and diverse systems.  Tolls may also drive up the cost of all roads to the extent that they compete for the same supplies of materials, labour, resources etc., driving up (literally) costs for everyone.

The Johnson St. Bridge doesn’t really offer much of an advantage for drivers.  To be sure it would be inconvenient, to say the least, if it wasn’t available, but that minimal advantage over say, the Bay St. Bridge, wouldn’t be enough to draw traffic to choose the bridge over alternative, free routes.

The second kind of toll I’ll call a turnstile toll.  It forces drivers to pay a toll to get to somewhere that they can’t get to by any other route, or at best, a much more distant alternative that would cost more in time or fuel (assuming that drivers make that rational decision).  Montreal’s Champlain Bridge has been raised as an example of a new toll bridge that the federal government will fund to connect the city of Montreal with south shore municipalities.  There are no alternatives to that crossing that make sense.  They are too distant and out of direction to be an option for most drivers using that bridge.  They’ll simply pay the charge, use their usual route, and most will recognize that it is a small price to pay for the convenience.

There are numbers of other examples of “turnstile” tolls where alternatives are untenable or non-existent and the toll really does pay for a connection that serves drivers most of all.  Vancouver is contemplating tolls on some bridges where extra capacity or new infrastructure is needed to support growing volumes of vehicle traffic.

The model doesn’t easily fit Victoria’s Johnson St. Bridge.  The alternatives are close enough to dislocate traffic to less suitable routes (Bay St. is already at capacity), and the dollar return so much less than one might predict from current traffic volumes.  Tolling would likely drive traffic volumes down, depressing revenues along with those other impacts.  Again, the sense of entitlement associated with road tolling would apply to our bridge and drivers would put up the pressure to service their needs above all others.

The third kind of toll, and one more likely fitting to our local situation, but equally problematic, is what I would call a punitive charge.  It’s anti-car by design and serves no other purpose than to extract money from drivers, by whatever means possible, to pay for the infrastructure they use, regardless of who they have to share it with or whatever purposes the route may serve.  (About 30% of traffic on the bridge is already on foot or traveling by bike so the target market for tolls is a lot smaller than traffic counts might suggest, and tolling bikes and pedestrians would be, to say the least, unfortunate if not unworkable.)

This too would drive traffic elsewhere.   People have options, and some of them might not include downtown at all.  Langford would be happy if Victoria charged punitive tolls, as would Saanich and their Uptown partners.  Sucking business out of downtown is part of suburban economic development strategies.  Their staunch commitment to free parking, and plenty of it, would help starve downtown of business (and how fast would the declining tax proceeds overwhelm the revenue from tolls?).  Tolls have their own infrastructure and administrative costs.  You have to ask if this is really worth it.

No surprise that I support user pay concepts for our transportation system – drivers in particular do enjoy a heavy subsidy already and need to pay more for the land and resources they use.  But I’m most interested in practical solutions that work in the real world to either solve transportation problems or ensure real equity in our transportation system. 

Location specific tolls may work, in some places, not so easily here.  What is more effective, if not equitable, are fuel taxes collected at the pump (efficient systems are in place already), and redistributed back to support transportation capital projects in the communities those taxes are drawn from.  We get some of those dollars back for transit in Victoria, and lately more through those gas tax funds rebated to municipalities accessed by application (the city already gets the first source and the bridge gets money from the second). 

Transit, and the CRD is working now on a study of alternate transportation funding models, mostly to support LRT, but whatever tools they might adopt could, much like current the Vancouver model, be used to support major regional infrastructure projects from bridges to bike lanes.  It could very well include tolls, additional fuel taxes or parking space taxes, but don’t expect it to be so simple as a coin box on the bridge.  A more fine-tuned toll system might be “road pricing”, where vehicles are equipped with a “black box” that records mileage and drivers or vehicle owners get charged accordingly.  It applies system wide so it doesn’t dislocate traffic, keeping decades of system design intact and securing a reasonably stable supply of funding.

Cost issues have got everyone running for cover, looking for ways to cover the real costs of dealing with aging infrastructure, and our bridge is just the most visible, and expensive challenge that the city is currently facing.  Other municipalities will have their own challenges and are looking for their own solutions.  But unlike bigger cities, with grid systems or distant connections over natural barriers, Victoria’s transportation networks are more organic and eclectic, and have grown into place for as long as the city has been here.  We need to find more thoughtful, practical and effective ways of paying to keep them operating and renew those pieces of critical infrastructure, like our bridge, (and some others in the region that are likewise at the end of their service life).  Tolling our new bridge though, is not that solution.

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