Think City: TransLink should toll all bridges, including Lions Gate and Alex Fraser crossings

By Think City

It’s a simple fact of life—freeways are not free. They cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

With municipalities in BC facing a $10-billion infrastructure deficit, there are serious questions about how to pay for the network of major roads and bridges in Metro Vancouver.

A growing population will place more demand on the road network, and many existing routes are nearing the end of their lifespan and will need either major repairs or replacement.

Renewed investment in public transit is one option that would reduce the growth in demand for road capacity, but transit investments are also very expensive. Higher property taxes is another option, but one that could be politically explosive. This leaves one option remaining—some form of user charges or tolls.

A patchwork system of tolls is already being introduced. The new Golden Ears Bridge linking Langley with Pitt Meadows is tolled. The new Port Mann Bridge will be tolled, as will the new Pattullo Bridge. When the Knight Street Bridge and the Massey Tunnel need major repairs or replacement, the new crossings will probably be tolled.

However, no tolls are charged on other major bridges and highways such as the Sea-to-Sky Highway, the Pitt River Bridge, the Alex Fraser Bridge, and both bridges over Burrard Inlet.

What is emerging is a transport system that is profoundly unfair. Motorists from south of the Fraser River will be charged hefty tolls, while those from Coquitlam and the North Shore will drive toll-free.

Meanwhile, transit users pay a toll every time they board a bus or SkyTrain.

A system-wide toll would charge the users of all major regional routes. The revenues would be channeled into a single fund to pay for the maintenance, repair and replacement of bridges and highways throughout the network.

Across the network the tolls could fluctuate based on daily traffic patterns. Peak demand times on the most heavily used routes could be priced higher than routes with lower demand routes.

Efficient goods movement is critical for the economy because time in transport adds to the price of goods without adding extra value. Commercial-vehicle-only lanes could be priced at premium levels, and many companies would be willing to pay premium tolls if it meant their trucks would spend less time stuck in traffic.

System tolls are already used in many countries, such as Portugal, where an electronic tolling system called the Via Verde (Green Road) covers all the major routes in the country. Congestion charges are tolls applied to traffic entering the more congested downtown areas.

Singapore introduced the world’s first congestion pricing scheme in 1975. Now congestion charges are widespread, with well-known examples in Bergen, Stockholm, Shanghai, and London.

The one-off approach to tolling also helps to facilitate the privatization of our highway network because most public-private partnership (P3) models seek to recover construction and operating costs by imposing tolls on new bridges and highway projects.

The Golden Ears Bridge is an example of this kind of privatization. Opened in mid-2009, traffic volumes have been lower than expected. This case illustrates there can be problems of leakage where alternate non-tolled routes exist.

According to TransLink figures, the Golden Ears Bridge is not meeting its revenue targets. While daily traffic volumes have slowly increased in recent months, they remain significantly below TransLinks’s original estimates. As a result, TransLink increased the tolls on the new bridge on July 15, 2010 to capture additional revenue.

Under the terms of the P3 agreement, the payments due to the private company that built and operates the bridge will step up to $4 million per month this year and rise to $4.8 million per month in 2015.

If the number of vehicle trips over the bridge continues to lag behind the estimated traffic volumes, TransLink will have to keep raising the tolls to keep up with the P3 payment schedule.

Under a traditional public financing model, big infrastructure projects benefit from lower operating costs and lower government borrowing costs. These costs are predictable and can be amortized over 25 or 30 years. If traffic volumes don’t meet pre-construction projections, the government doesn’t have to hike tolls.

A system-wide toll makes sense. It is the best means to finance the necessary maintenance, repairs, and replacement of our highway network. It will also treat all users fairly, allow price signals to regulate demand, and keep our highway infrastructure in public hands, which ultimately saves money for taxpayers.

This commentary first appeared on the website of Think City, a nonprofit urban-issues policy group. The article reflects the position of the board of directors.


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Fan'o Truth

Feb 15, 2011 at 1:17pm

Will the Burrard, Granville Street and Cambie Street Bridges be tolled as well?

What about Knight Street, Oak Street, Queensborough, Arthur Laing and Deas Island Tunnel?

If all structures are tolled, could the tolls be reduced to, say, 50 cents or $1.00? What percentage of the toll revenues would be devoted to highway, bridge and tunnel maintenance and new construction, and what percentage would be diverted to other uses?

13 6Rating: +7

Ken Lawson

Feb 15, 2011 at 1:18pm

Another stupid idea proposed by some wing nut that wants to get noticed!


Feb 15, 2011 at 2:42pm

@Ken Lawson

Another stupid comment by some wing nut that wants to get noticed!

Kim Collins

Feb 15, 2011 at 2:55pm

Great idea! We live in a society that believes that the market is the most effective way to allocate scarce resources. So, why aren't we using market-based pricing to allocate use of the region's major infrastructure? Or another way, why should those of us who place the greatest wear and tear on the infrastructure not pay a premium to use it? Conversely, why should those of us who don't use it have to subsidize those who use it a lot?

We have the same problem with ICBC's auto insurance. Because of flat pricing those of us who drive a lot are subsidized by those that drive little. And because car insurance isn't priced according to use it creates an incentive to drive more, which produces more congestion, pollution, lost productivity, etc, etc. The solution? Per kilometre insurance plans AKA Pay-as-you-Drive insurance.


Feb 15, 2011 at 4:00pm

Another post about TransLink and transit in Metro Vancouver where it's the cart before the horse again. Metro has no consolidated plan, is hooked on Skytrain to the financial detriment of the region as a whole, and does has no power to sequester funds collected from carbon tax, gas tax, etc. to put back into roads and transit services and improvements. Until TransLink can get its act together, then discussions like putting tolls on bridges are arbitrary at best.

7 9Rating: -2

Valley Resident

Feb 15, 2011 at 4:23pm

This long winded article is rather focused on what someone WANTS to do, but gives little if any details of how (previous to a Liberal strong hold on our political system) was the means to which large scale Transportation/Highway projects were funded, why or what motivates a person or body to give so much misleading information, how is it that the 10 billion dollar deficit doesn't somehow come out of our politicians golden retirement packages, you know the ones most Liberals voted in for themselves giving them a comfortable retirement than almost any other form of public servant, was it not the Liberals who chose to spend, spend, spend, like they were drunk with a swiss bank account busting at the seems? How arrogant this person/body is to dictate, oh by the way we need to take more than 40% of your Taxable income to pay for more extravagant illogical Liberal political mockery, why do Liberals time and time again say to the public hey we've got it right, PAY ME, NOW THANK-YOU VERY MUCH, AND PLEASE STOP SNIFFLING WE JUST DONT CARE! WE HAVE A SWEET RETIREMENT PACKAGE THAT NEEDS MORE FUNDING!?!?!?! Now that would be truth in Advertising, not like the nonsense that we read now telling us that we are all out of touch, and know nothing!

8 9Rating: -1


Feb 15, 2011 at 5:30pm

Bang on Valley Resident. i to am a valley resident
i'm taking my fat public sector pension & leaving this backwards province behind in a few years.


Feb 15, 2011 at 8:01pm

Judging from the experience I have seen in my United States, even system-wide tolling in Vancouver will still require some tax subsidies to repair or replace the affected roads and bridges. The traffic counts on which agencies and companies base their revenues often fail to materialize, and raising the tolls doesn't help, since higher tolls will discourage more people from using the facilities.

For example, we have a highway near Washington, DC called the iIntercounty Connector, which will connect Interstate 270 in Montgomery County, Maryland to Interstate 95 in Prince Georges County in the same state. The road is so expensive that, even though it will charge tolls, it has already been tremendously subsidized by tax money. 50,000 vehicles per day are being projected when the road opens completely. If that many people actually use the road, I'll eat my hat!

Furthermore, the Northwest Parkway (Denver, Colorado) and the South Bay Expressway (San Diego, California) are failing miserably as toll ventures, because the projected traffic counts are not materializing. According to this article, your Golden Ears Bridge is having a similar problem.

I believe in tolling, because the user pays. However, I will not kid myself that tolls will completely fund the world's highway and bridge needs.

7 10Rating: -3

Vancouver 2011

Feb 16, 2011 at 10:07am

Tolls are good for new bridges to pay for capital expense when there is an improvement. The north shore used pay a toll on lions gate bridge when it was privately owned. All roades need to be repaved and paid for by the local governments then reimbursed through property tax. Burrard, Granville, cambie bridges are city owned.

8 5Rating: +3

Peter F

Feb 16, 2011 at 10:21am

I am all for making drivers pay the toll that they put on our environment and society. However, this can be dealt with in a more democratic way. Fuel taxes and or some for of milelage levy hit those that drive the most, who as a result utilize the road infrastructure the most. You drive more, you pay more.

I am sure that if you were to analyze the driving habits of folks in the lower mainland, you will find that on a given day, many will drive hundreds of kilometres but will never cross a bridge. The biggest issue of the lower mainland is not that we as drivers cross bridges but rather we as drivers sit alone in our cars and commute to far to work. We hop in our cars to drive our childern to school. We whip down to the local shop to gather provisions in our automobiles. The automobile has become an extension of our bodies. Any hinderance or cost to the freedom of this mechanical appendage is an afront to our being.

We need transportation policy and taxes that makes us think, do I really need a car for this? instead of where can I drive to avoid that bridge toll.