Linger one morning near the intersection of Broadway and Commercial Drive, as tens of thousands of people do each weekday, and hope and resentment will be your bickering companions. When a 99 B-Line bus that’s not full to capacity finally arrives, you will pay $2.75 for the pleasure of a 55-stoplight, 14-kilometre ride to UBC.
Now imagine yourself driving south, waiting for the red light to change at Vancouver’s 70th Avenue and Oak Street intersection. From the light there, you can drive 2,862 kilometres to Tijuana, Mexico, without hitting a second traffic light. Discounting gas and meals, the entire road trip costs nada.
But all this is about to change. Across North America—around the world, in fact—the century-old myth that public transit should cost but that highways are free is about to be tossed into history’s Dumpster.
The reason is this: road pricing. It’s necessary. It’s contentious. And it’s coming to Vancouver.
As a congestion-reducing/transit-promoting strategy, it comes in myriad guises. In California, for example, the strategy appears as transponder-linked high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes in L.A. and San Diego. Rates posted roadside for HOT–lane occupancy constantly change with time and traffic volumes. In San Francisco, road pricing means a soon-to-be-instituted $3 road-usage charge for all drivers entering that city’s cordoned downtown core. In Hong Kong, in Dallas, in Rio, in Rome, and in scores of other jurisdictions: if you use roads, you pay.
Of course, nothing is more contentious than trying to convince Metro Vancouver’s one million drivers that they should pay for something long provided free. In Canada—unlike Europe—there’s very little experience with road-pricing formulas. Subsequently, there’s very little public understanding of the variety of options, the methods of collecting money, and the urgency of getting approval for the Metro Vancouver transit referendum that Premier Christy Clark first announced for November 2014 but that will likely be delayed.
Sooner or later, a road-pricing referendum will occur here. But as the history of these referendums has shown, without serious public education and political groundwork laid, the referendum will fail. Virtually every authority I spoke with used apocalyptic terms to describe the consequences of that happening.
Sitting on a window-side stool atop Harbour Centre, Gordon Price, six-term Vancouver city councillor and now SFU’s director of city programs, has a good vantage point to survey the past century’s approach to who pays—or, more accurately, who doesn’t pay—for roads. In the postwar ’50s, with the economy booming, the U.S. government—followed closely by Canada—commenced the largest public-works program in history. Rather than investing, as the Europeans did, in urban transit and trains, North America entered a period that Price calls “motordom”, during which trillions of dollars were spent on—and this is the operative word—freeways.
Propelled by cheap fuel, cheap land, and government-secured mortgages, thousands of kilometres of highways were built to service the ever-expanding suburbs as authorities succumbed to magical thinking: if you build it, they will come. But, as it has turned out, they will come only as long as commuters accept the tradeoff of inexpensive homes in Levittown or Langley for a twice-daily crawl to and from work. Which means: as long as roads remain free.
But those days are just about gone.
Price says that free highways are a gigantic Ponzi scheme. Contingent on endless suburban growth, they are—like the deceptions of American financial adviser Bernie Madoff—impossible to sustain. That’s because freeways beget sprawl and sprawl begets more freeways in an ever-expanding cancer of invisible costs. For most of the second half of the 20th century, in fact, developers, construction companies, mall retailers, car manufacturers, oil companies, and mortgage-issuing banks—no small players in capitalism—feasted on this government-subsidized gravy train. Road users didn’t complain; they weren’t being asked to contribute directly to the costs. But they’re there.
For example, the average Surrey commuter—in twice-daily, 35-minute road trips to and from work—spends 330 hours annually in highway congestion. (That’s 10 times more than the average person annually spends making love.) Time and money are lost amid traffic, and stress gained. Plus, that Surrey commuter typically drives three times as far as a Vancouver resident.
Yes, every vehicle user, whether from Surrey or Vancouver, pays a fuel surcharge of 17 cents per litre that goes toward roads and transit. But this, in addition to TransLink’s bus and SkyTrain fares and a portion of property taxes, covers less than half of this region’s annual transportation costs. In fact, were the average Surrey commuter to pay the full per capita cost of the roads he uses—ignoring the real but incalculable costs of carbon-dioxide emissions, lost farmland, and diminished health—it’s estimated that he should be paying an additional $12 for road usage. Daily. Or almost $2,900 a year. Instead, if he avoids the Port Mann Bridge’s $3 toll, he pays nada.
From Singapore to Stockholm, the mathematics of freeways (and unfettered access to congested downtown cores) no longer works. Here are some sobering facts. Every year, Metro Vancouver gains 32,000 new residents. In 30 years, that means 1,000,000 newcomers here. Research shows that the majority will, like their predecessors, live in the suburbs—in places like Abbotsford, Maple Ridge, and Delta, where real-estate prices are relatively low.
But that’s a very big problem. Mass transit cannot serve suburban sprawl. Not enough density and ridership. So, major expansions of Metro Vancouver’s roads and highway infrastructure will continue to be needed. Not to mention equally expensive investments where transit does work.
The troubling consequences of these future transportation demands are compounded by onerous current trends. As people become more inclined to telecommute and as cars become more fuel-efficient, the revenue generated by the Vancouver region’s fuel surcharge, once predicted to rise substantially, has flat-lined. This has forced TransLink to trim its budget, curtailing action on transit expansion—like the long-stalled and urgently needed Broadway subway line.
Equally worrisome, toll-revenue projections for both the Golden Ears and Port Mann bridges have turned out to be disastrously optimistic. For example, traffic on the new $3.3-billion Port Mann Bridge, once predicted to double in the next decade, is actually declining—as thousands daily skirt the toll there. And the new Golden Ears Bridge is facing a $40-million annual deficit in anticipated revenue. (These twin issues mirror similar serious problems with fuel-surcharge revenue and tolled transportation megaprojects worldwide.)
This is why TransLink is projecting a $32-billion revenue shortfall over the next 30 years.
Says Seattle transportation expert Clark Williams-Derry: “Transportation planning is speeding toward a fiscal cliff.”
No one is more convinced of the necessity of road pricing than the District of North Vancouver’s three-term mayor, Richard Walton. He prefers the less scary phrase “mobility pricing”. Walton has travelled internationally, looking into initiatives to lessen urban congestion and to reduce the hemorrhaging of tax dollars on transportation infrastructure. And he is convinced that road users need to pay for their road use.
However, it’s under Walton’s chairmanship of the Metro Vancouver Mayors’ Council that its 21 mayors united in January to oppose Clark and her transportation minister, Todd Stone, in the provincial government’s insistence that a road-pricing referendum be held this year.
Seated below a massive aerial photo of the North Shore and gesturing to local traffic choke points, Walton describes his views about both municipal politicians’ and the public’s likely reaction to a hurry-up transit referendum: “Road pricing’s a very, very complex issue. Do you toll bridges? Which ones? Do you charge for vehicle access to downtown streets like they do now in London and Singapore and Stockholm? Should there be high-occupancy toll lanes like in southern California? Do you need a subway line to UBC or a bridge to replace the Massey Tunnel? If you say to voters, ‘I want to tax your movements,’ they say, ‘Why me? Why not them!’ ”
As Walton makes clear in what he says next, this isn’t mere speculation. He wants mobility pricing. But if the referendum—whenever it does occur—were to raise the possibility of restoring long-abandoned tolls on the Lions Gate and Second Narrows bridges, it would be suicide for him to support the proposal. Municipal politics are, after all, local.
That’s the central problem he and other experts in transportation face when confronted with road pricing. Why should Surrey commuters pay bridge tolls when North Vancouver commuters don’t? Why would White Rock or Belcarra voters support an expensive Broadway subway project? These parochial “Why me?” questions have dominated, and usually defeated, transportation referendums worldwide. And they could again—without leadership and a concerted public-education program—among this region’s municipalities.
For example: when Stockholm began looking at road pricing 14 years ago, the options were as varied as those facing Vancouver today. After six years and much winnowing, a simple 2006 referendum question was posed: would Greater Stockholm commuters approve a graduated $1.50 to $4 rush-hour levy to pass through a licence-plate-reading camera cordon around the city? Residents of the City of Stockholm said “yes”—by just 53 percent. But the city’s 14 voting suburbs said “no”—by an average of 60 percent. (By the terms of the referendum, however, the City of Stockholm’s vote trumped the suburban votes, and the 18-gate cordon is now operating.)
Or take Oregon, where authorities began investigating a statewide road-usage fee in 2001. Would there be a flat fee for each driver? Or for every registered car? An increased sales tax? A vehicle-miles-travelled (VMT) tax? After 12 years of debate, Oregon legislated the initial phase of America’s first VMT trial last August. It allows drivers of 5,000 fuel-efficient vehicles to pay for their metered road usage (at 1.5 cents per mile) in exchange for rebates on the state’s gas tax. (In time, it will apply to every Oregon vehicle.)
And in 2007, Seattle introduced a series of referendum questions that involved voters prioritizing among transit projects, bike lanes, increased train service, and/or new toll roads and bridges. The right argued: no new taxes; the left: no more highways. The referendum failed. (A subsequent Puget Sound referendum, doubling the metropolitan region’s sales tax—from five percent to 10 percent—and focusing strictly on transit, passed.)
These three jurisdictions illustrate the difficulties Metro Vancouver residents—and their leaders—face over road pricing and future transit investments. Today, most pundits and politicians agree that the public has neither the facts nor a sense of urgency concerning the tens of billions of dollars that are at stake. That’s because the case has not begun to be focused. Which project most needs implementation now? What’s the cost? How will a road-pricing system work?
It’s probably not a good sign that when Ian Jarvis, CEO of TransLink, responded to my recent question about whether or not his transit-operating organization had priorities to put to referendum, he held out his hands in supplication, laughed, and said, “Not really.” And Walton said of the prospect of voting soon on the temporarily delayed referendum: “It’s like you’ve been told you’re taking a test and no one—not even the teacher—has any idea what the questions are!”
The case for road pricing marks the necessary end to a century of almost boundless transportation freedom in North America. It’s estimated that the continent’s freeway congestion annually costs society $133 billion in lost income and seven billion hours of lost time. The detrimental costs in carbon-dioxide emissions and urban health are equally egregious. Research indicates that about 225,000 people in North America die each year from the prolonged effects of urban, mostly vehicular, air pollution. (That’s 225 times greater than annual gun-related deaths.)
Clark Williams-Derry is program director for the Sightline Institute, a Seattle-based think tank on Cascadia transportation and sustainability issues. He’s well aware of TransLink’s $32-billion projected deficit and the urgent need for new revenue. “The problem with road pricing,” he says by phone, “is the drivers who benefit from roads aren’t prepared to pay. And even though everybody says we need more transit, when road pricing is implemented, most of the money’s still spent on roads.” And he sighs audibly. “Transportation policy should be framed for the needs of the 21st century: transit. Not the perceived needs of the 20th: roads. But there’s always a mixture of delusion and deception in transportation planning.”
And he compares the pressure from highway interests—transportation engineers, suburban developers, and many government officials—to build more roads to the economic interests of the American military-industrial complex in fighting more wars. Both are entrenched and backward-looking.
What Williams-Derry calls for is a new paradigm, a new way of framing the issue. He agrees with North Vancouver’s Walton that the phrase “mobility pricing”—rather than “road pricing”—is more salable. It focuses on the positive—mobility—in all its guises: bike lanes, walking, transit, highways, congestion reduction, and time savings. Plus: the “mobility” phrase emphasizes how, by accepting to pay for road use, Metro Vancouver drivers both fund transit improvements and increase their own mobility by reducing highway congestion—as more people utilize better bus and SkyTrain service. (TransLink’s long-term goal, assuming the referendum passes, is to get 50 percent of Metro Vancouver commuters using transit within the next 30 years.)
The central trick of implementing road pricing, Williams-Derry argues, is to get the public to accept an idea with an ugly bureaucratic name but a simple principle. It’s called “traffic-demand management”. What this means is that through ever-changing tolls—rising and falling in increments with traffic volumes—highway rush-hour congestion or downtown gridlock is significantly reduced.
In road-cordoned Stockholm, for example, with its variable vehicle-entry fees, many drivers choose to go to work and leave work early (or late), skirting the expensive peak-hours toll. (No fee is charged during evenings and weekends.) Transit use there has increased by 31 percent. Air pollution has decreased by 15 percent. And journey times for both express buses and paying highway commuters are down.
As has happened under similar pricing regimes in London and Singapore, as the rush hour stretches from two to three to four hours, and as businesses adjust to more flexible office times, the traditional congestion pinch points become less crowded. And arguments for expanded road infrastructure—think of the $3-billion bridge slated to replace Highway 99’s Massey Tunnel in 2019—become more absurd. (This proposed Fraser River crossing will cost the same as the long-delayed, $3-billion Broadway subway line.)
Seated in his City Hall boardroom with False Creek’s construction cranes at work beyond the windows, Mayor Gregor Robertson is clearly frustrated. From his perspective, the thought that a 2014 transit referendum would even occur—let alone now be delayed—is anathema.
“It sucks to have a referendum to start with,” he says. “Transit shouldn’t be put to referendum…when roads and bridges aren’t. Look, the Massey Bridge isn’t a priority. Yet the B.C. government rubber-stamped it. Instead of taking a leadership position—saying we need major transit improvements—the provincial government passes the ball. Putting transit to referendum creates the potential of pitting the region’s cities against each other.”
In Robertson’s mind, there’s a real danger—given the newness, the complexity, and the fractiousness of road pricing—that the public will simply reject it. To succeed, he believes, the referendum question should be simple, a clear yes/no vote on whether or not people want to invest in transit. Period.
Then the jurisdictional haggling begins. He’s well aware that Surrey is looking at a three-pronged light-rapid-transit extension. The cost there: $2.2 billion. And Coquitlam is still waiting to complete its $1.4-billion Evergreen Line.
Robertson argues that Metro Vancouver already has good SkyTrain service: 1) south to Richmond; 2) east to Surrey; and 3) north—via SeaBus—to North Vancouver. What’s missing, he believes, is: 4) a westward, 10-station subway line along Broadway to UBC. Its cost: $3 billion. “It’s the biggest gap in the region’s transit system,” he says emphatically. “Ridership will be massive: over 100,000 people a day.” It is his number one priority.
I tell him I can hear the other mayors, each arguing the transit case for his or her city. “Yeah, it’s a mug’s game,” he admits.
I ask him, “What’s a mug’s game?” and he says, laughing, that he doesn’t even know what “mug’s game” means, but, to clarify: “It’s a muddle.” Yes: the complex road-pricing choices ahead, the lack of provincial courage on transit initiatives, the possibility of conflict over municipal priorities, the potential for a hurried referendum’s failure, all seem daunting.
“It’s a mug’s game,” Robertson repeats—obviously liking the phrase’s ambiguity—as if to illustrate the confusion around road pricing and transit and, inevitably, Vancouver’s future.