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Suburban Mayor Defends Tolling as British Columbia Election Heats Up

By: 
Bill Cramer

IBTTA members have known for a very long time that the more familiar people are with modern tolling systems, the more likely they are to like them.

Now, in a suburb of Greater Vancouver, at least one mayor is adding his voice to a debate that has begun to emerge during the provincial election in British Columbia, on Canada’s west coast.

And New Westminster Mayor Jonathan Coté is weighing in in favor of tolling as a tool for managing the region’s epic traffic.

Uncorking the Bottleneck

Vancouver is one of Canada’s most heavily congested cities, a case where geography is destiny. Wedged between the Rocky Mountains on one side and the Pacific Ocean on the other, the region is the third-largest population center in the country, and has spent years debating the mix of transit and other surface transportation features that will keep people and goods on the move.

One of those features is the Port Mann Bridge, a 10-lane tolled facility that became North America’s second-longest cable-stayed bridge, and the widest in the world, when it opened in 2012. When work on the structure was complete in 2014, it “effectively uncorked the worst bottleneck in Metro Vancouver,” said Michael Proudfoot, CEO of the Transportation Investment Corporation.

The system works. But commuters on either side of the bridge are spread across six voting districts that could decide the outcome of a tight provincial election May 9. So, the leaders of the two main provincial parties are promising to either eliminate tolling or impose a cap on per-vehicle charges, leading to loud, frustrated accusations that they’re both putting short-term political gain over sound regional transportation policy.

“Another provincial election,” the Globe and Mail commented last week. “Another grenade thrown into rational transportation planning in the region in favor of shameless pandering for votes.” The paper cited transit advocate Gordon Price of Simon Fraser University accusing the leaders of “blatant vote-buying” in the neighborhoods surrounding the bridge.

The Defence of Tolling

But if B.C. Liberal Leader (and sitting premier) Christy Clark and New Democratic Party (NDP) Leader John Horgan are playing for the regional vote, they’re running up against at least one of the suburban mayors who’ve been scrambling to craft a regional transit plan that includes a shift toward mobility pricing.

“It may be good politics but it’s bad public policy,” New Westminster’s Coté told the Globe. “It’s about demand management and using (pricing) to reduce congestion. Simply adding roads and public transit is not going to be enough. We were hoping to use mobility pricing to shape driver behavior, to encourage people to drive in off-peak hours.”

The provincial leader who promised to eliminate tolls altogether was Horgan, who’s showing signs that he might pull off the New Democrats’ first election win since 2001. But within the NDP, there’s recognition that when it comes to transportation infrastructure, you get what you pay for.

“This fiction that you can get mobility and don’t have to pay for it has to end,” said former NDP premier Mike Harcourt, a former Vancouver mayor and noted urban strategist who’s advising the party on policy and strategy. Harcourt “firmly believes citizens realize that they can’t use the roads for free, and that will become apparent when there is a healthy public conversation about the $2-billion cost of current congestion in the region and how to solve it,” the Globe and Mail stated.

The results of the B.C. election will almost certainly be close—close enough that six suburban districts could make all the difference. But the debate so far shows that road pricing is on the public agenda, gaining visible support that would not have been a foregone conclusion in years past.

Download IBTTA’s SmartMove success story on the Port Mann Bridge.