Groups that represent businesses and economic interests are criticizing the City of Vancouver’s timing and approach for planning road tolls within the Metro Core area.
Last week, city staff released its new Climate Emergency Action Plan (CEAP), which includes plans to install mobility pricing for cars entering the Metro Core, which includes downtown Vancouver and the Central Broadway Corridor. This area is defined by Clark Drive to the east, West 16th Avenue to the south, Burrard Street to the east, and vehicles entering the downtown peninsula from the Lions Gate Bridge.
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If the CEAP is approved by city council on Tuesday, it would trigger further development and planning of the mobility pricing strategy for implementation by 2025.
However, business groups believe this is premature, and requires more analysis on the potential negative economic impacts for both downtown and across the region. While he supports mobility pricing, he believes there needs to be a clear regional approach.
“I just feel that that idea needs to be parked for now. They need to do more in-depth consultation and briefing with the downtown business community, specifically,” Charles Gauthier, the president and CEO of the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association (DVBIA), told Daily Hive Urbanized.
“I also think the City of Vancouver going at it alone isn’t going to solve the problem, and congestion is region wide. There are choke points region wide that need to be addressed.”
He cites surveys performed by the DVBIA of regional residents who indicated road congestion as an issue, but they noted it is primarily coming from other points in the region into downtown.
“There is congestion in downtown, but it’s not the pain point they’re telling us about,” said Gauthier.
“Vancouver going at it alone doesn’t solve what we’re hearing from the business community, which is goods movement and how that gets tied up in congestion, increasing costs for consumers. I just feel that Vancouver going at it alone, creating this zone to toll people, is potentially going to drive away customers, and eventually it’ll drive away businesses.”
He warns that some businesses could consider relocating out of the tolled area, but it will not happen overnight: “It’ll happen as leases come up, and businesses will make those kind of decisions.”
Businesses, especially in the city centre, are already devastated by COVID-19, with further major waves of layoffs and permanent closures ahead.
“It just seems to be going at it alone when this is a regional issue that needs a regional approach. If that being said it takes longer to do, then so be it,” continued Gauthier, adding that this amounts to “putting the cart before the horse.”
“I think the risks far outweigh any of the benefits for the downtown business community at this point.”
This was very much the same message from the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade (GVBOT).
GVBOT president and CEO Bridgitte Anderson said charging vehicles for entering the city centre “could spell disaster for downtown businesses who are already struggling in the wake of COVID-19.”
While office space vacancy remains low at 4%, overall office occupancy of workers in these spaces remains low due to downsizing and temporary work-from-home, with overall occupancy ranging between 10% and 40%. The absence of office workers has hurt restaurants, shops, and services.
“These proposals would be punitive to those ‘Main Street’ businesses, many of whom pre-COVID, were battling for their survival due in part to increased costs, regulations, property taxes, and fees,” she said.
Anderson also highlighted concerns over a city-centric strategy that does not provide a holistic approach for the entire region, and does not consider the movement of goods,” which calls into question “Vancouver’s continued role as a gateway for trade and commerce.”
“If we are going to enhance our regional competitiveness and avoid unintended consequences, Greater Vancouver’s mobility pricing cannot be implemented in a vacuum,” she said. For instance, offices that relocate to less densely populated areas away from transit services and decreased walkability will result in increased automobile usage, and therefore increased congestion and emissions.
She supports a clear direction for regional mobility pricing that provides a replacement revenue source to replace declining gas and parking taxes, as identified by the 2018 findings of TransLink’s Mobility Pricing Independent Commission.
“Without that regional approach, we are adding additional costs, and running the risk of creating an uncoordinated patchwork of systems that could have the opposite effect of increasing congestion and emissions especially if businesses move their operations outside of the city,” said Anderson.
“As we navigate this pandemic and work toward recovery, we must ensure we are doing all we can to help businesses survive instead of adding to their burden and fanning the flames of adversity that they already face.”
GVBOT has sent a letter to city council that brings up these concerns directly.