Passengers line up to board a Canada Line train at Bridgeport in Richmond.

Road pricing logic may extend to transit too

TransLink eyes time-of-use charges for all commuters, not just Metro Vancouver drivers

TransLink is doubling down on the concept of road pricing, arguing it should apply not just to cars to control congestion at the busiest times but also to transit riders to make more efficient use of buses and SkyTrain as well.

A revision of TransLink’s long-range regional transportation strategy is going to public consultation over the next two months and it reinforces the idea of using time-of-use pricing tools to make the most of investments.

The Transportation 2045 plan will argue the number of vehicle trips travelled in the region must climb no higher if Metro Vancouver is to remain a livable region and not end up mired in gridlock.

Capping car travel will be hard.

The overall number of trips taken is projected to climb 50 per cent over the next three decades as a million more Metro Vancouverites arrive, all criss-crossing the region to get to 500,000 more jobs.

So planners say the proportion of trips by transit, cycling and walking must rise at a much faster rate from 27 per cent now to 50 per cent, while the share of trips by car falls.

Building more rapid transit lines is part of the strategy – TransLink estimates up to $23 billion is needed to expand the system over 30 years. The first $5 billion would merely maintain what already exists.

But another plank in the document says TransLink should “price roads and transit for fairness, efficiency and revenue.”

TransLink strategic planning vice-president Bob Paddon said road pricing has been in long-range plans for 20 years, but it’s now becoming critical to implement.

Area mayors also want to explore road pricing, where drivers might pay more in tolls to drive on major routes depending on the time of day or severity of congestion.

TransLink’s draft document says pricing can cut congestion at peak times while offering users a choice.

“Those who choose to forego a trip, bundle some trips together, travel at a less busy time, use a less busy route or travel by another mode will be rewarded with savings in time and money,” it says.

Paddon said TransLink’s new Compass card system could make it possible to emulate Washington D.C., where subway riders pay based on both the distance travelled and by the time of day.

“The farther you go, the more you pay,” Paddon said. “And if you want to go at the peak of rush hour you pay more.”

He said airlines also make passengers pay more for the last seats as a plane fills up, while offering discounts to sell seats on underused routes or at less popular times.

Drivers will respond to price signals, he suggests, pointing to the success of the #555 bus over the new Port Mann Bridge. Its initial ridership has doubled – it now averages 73 per cent full – as 1,600 passengers a day ride over the bridge without paying the new toll.

TransLink also wants cities to step up.

Better land use can gradually put more people and their destinations closer to transit routes. With more people able to ride transit, planners reckon, average trip distances can be reduced by one third.

Once the 2045 strategy is approved, TransLink is to develop a 15-year plan of new transportation investments this fall.

The plan is expected to include billions of dollars to build rapid transit lines in Surrey to Guildford, Langley and White Rock, as well as the Broadway line west to UBC.

Once it’s in place, TransLink, mayors and the province will have to draw up a proposal for how to fund the upgrades that would be put to a referendum in the fall of 2014.

The referendum was an election promise of Premier Christy Clark, who also said during the campaign that she opposes making drivers pay to use existing roads or bridges.

Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan said TransLink’s intent to raise up to $23 billion, presumably funded in part through road pricing, is “far too ambitious” even for an aspirational plan.

“There is a point where reality has to set in for all of us,” Corrigan said. “We go out to the public with an unrealistic plan, that raises expectations as to what could be accomplished, when in fact none of that is a reasonable possibility in the near future.”

Belcarra Mayor Ralph Drew said TransLink’s time frame for decisions should be reversed – the region should first decide how much more residents can afford to pay and then decide the projects that will be built, not the other way around.

He said the other big bills coming to Metro taxpayers, such as for new sewage treatment plants, must also be weighed.

Licence plate cameras in Stockholm detect and bill drivers as they enter or leave the central city. Overhead signs show the amount currently being charged. Rates range from zero to 20 krona ($3.20) depending on the time of day.

Stockholm’s congestion fee offers lessons for Metro

Stockholm is being held up as one example where road pricing is working to control traffic and steer more drivers to public transit.

Mayors Council chair Richard Walton recently visited the Swedish city and said it offers plenty of lessons for planning towards something similar in Metro Vancouver.

Stockholm’s congestion tax charges motorists higher amounts to enter or leave the city core at peak periods, and less or nothing to travel off-peak.

The maximum they pay is the equivalent of $10 a day.

The system was introduced in 2007 and rush-hour traffic volumes promptly fell 20 to 25 per cent, while transit use rose 13 per cent on trains and 18 per cent on express buses.

The congestion tax was put to a vote of residents, but not until one year after it was already in operation.

Walton said politicians concluded it had no chance of passing until drivers saw how it worked and felt the benefits of freer flowing roads.

They agreed they’d simply scrap the $500-million investment in cameras and detectors if it failed.

The referendum was only binding in central Stockholm, where it passed by 53 per cent. All outer suburbs voted against it by margins of up to 70 per cent.

Walton said a congestion charge system wouldn’t work in Metro Vancouver because of our different geography and travel patterns, but road pricing variants will be examined.

Walton remains a strong supporter of the concept based on the Swedish experience, but is leery about winning over voters in a promised referendum.

“This is a tough, tough sell,” he said.

Port Moody Mayor Mike Clay said road pricing could relieve traffic jams in the northeast sector.

“If we can shift people’s transportation mode as a result of a tolling policy like that, you can stretch your road infrastructure another 50 per cent,” Clay said.

“Maybe instead of worrying about building more roads we should be figuring out how to more effectively use them.”

TransLink – Draft Strategic Framework for Consultation on Regional Transportation Strategy by Jeff Nagel

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