Opinion: Vancouver's road tolls should be paired with $25 billion of new transit

Nov 3 2020, 2:06 pm

There is no doubt that some sort of mobility pricing system will be needed in Metro Vancouver, eventually.

Mobility pricing, a concept of charging a user fee on vehicle trips, such as tolls, was identified as a necessary eventuality in the comprehensive 2018 findings of TransLink’s Mobility Pricing Independent Commission (MPIC).

There continues to be a very strong case for regional mobility pricing; according to ICBC statistics, the number of vehicles in the Lower Mainland has grown by 10% from 1.86 million in 2015 to 2.05 million in 2019. Within the City of Vancouver, this figure is 16% — from 316,709 in 2015 to 386,957 in 2019.

With population growth and the trend of households moving eastward into suburban municipalities in pursuit of housing affordability, increased vehicle ownership can be expected.

But this is a small geographic region, and there is only so much space to fit the increasing footprint of vehicles on the road.

Policymakers have long struggled with the tug-of-war of how to discourage car ownership and use. This is a delicate question of balancing positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement.

For the City of Vancouver, it is no secret they tend to prefer negative reinforcement — the stick. Last week in a report on strategies under the municipality’s new Climate Emergency Action Plan, city staff recommended to city council the implementation of road tolls on vehicles entering a geographical cordon area of the Metro Core, which includes all of the downtown Vancouver peninsula and the Central Broadway corridor.

The Metro Core is framed by Burrard Street to the west, 16th Avenue to the south, and Clark Drive to the east. Vehicles entering downtown from the Lions Gate Bridge would also be affected. Road tolls in this area would begin in 2025.

vancouver metro core map

Map of Metro Vancouver’s Metro Core, defined as the downtown Vancouver peninsula and the Central Broadway Corridor. (City of Vancouver)

Based on the city’s preliminary estimates, mobility pricing within the Metro Core could have a one-time $250-million installation and technology capital cost. Net revenue would allow for the capital cost to be repaid within a period of three years to five years, which translates to $50 million to $80 million in annual revenue that exceeds operating costs.

Contrast this to the MIPC’s findings of a regional mobility pricing system that generates between $170 million and $290 million annually, net of operating costs.

According to the city staff report, revenues generated from the Metro Core mobility pricing scheme “could be the predominant source of funding for climate emergency actions, potentially used to fund other sustainable modes of transportation.”

It is unclear, but that suggests net revenue would go back to the City of Vancouver budget, even though the idea of mobility pricing began on the regional level to help achieve broad regional needs.

MIPC was carefully formed by TransLink to help evaluate mobility pricing as a serious replacement for its dwindling gas tax revenues and to help fund transit expansion.

In 2018, TransLink collected about $400 million of its revenues from the $0.17 tax on each litre of fuel sold within Metro Vancouver (this increased to $0.185 per litre in July 2019). It accounted for about a quarter of the public transit authority’s operating revenues, but this share is expected to fall dramatically over the next 20 years with the provincially mandated shift to 100% zero-emission vehicle sales in BC by 2040. The Lower Mainland is already seeing a strong trend towards electric-battery vehicles, with the growth of this type of vehicle accelerating at an exponential rate — 2,252 vehicles in 2015, 3,641 in 2016, 6,165 in 2017, 11,131 in 2018, and 21,859 in 2019.

Moreover, the city’s plans to implement its own mobility pricing scheme has caught TransLink and the Mayors’ Council completely off guard, according to sources. Regional mobility pricing is already being considered for inclusion in TransLink’s ongoing Transport 2050 process of a new 30-year regional transportation plan, which will be finalized in 2021.

There is talk from city staff of using Metro Core mobility pricing as a “testbed for the eventual expansion to the broader Metro Vancouver region over time,” even though there is no guarantee that a system that works for regional needs will be compatible with the local level system.

If the City of Vancouver wants to prove this is not a blatant cash grab, every single penny generated from the proposed tolls in the Metro Core must be redirected back to TransLink for effective regional transportation expansion and improvement projects that actually help the region’s residents get into the Metro Core and elsewhere.

This circles back to the need for positive reinforcement.

The planned 2025 timing for the start of tolls in the Metro Core coincides with the opening of the six-km-long, six-station Millennium Line Broadway Extension between VCC-Clark Station and Arbutus Street. That same year, at least a segment of the Expo Line Fraser Highway Extension from King George Station to Langley Centre will also open. This means the SkyTrain could reach a length of 100 kms by 2025.

Broadway Extension broadway subway

Map of the Millennium Line’s Broadway Extension subway stations. (TransLink)

While these projects, particularly the Broadway Extension to Arbutus, will be game-changing for the region’s public transit network, they are far from enough, especially with the city staff report’s comparisons to the urban tolling systems for congestion pricing in cities like Singapore, Stockholm, and London.

These cities have comprehensive, layered, reliable, and attractive public transit systems. The TransLink system is amongst the best in North America, but compared to the systems of these cities it still has much work to do with offering superior service coverage, speed, and reliability.

The island city-state of Singapore with nearly six million residents has a total land area of 726 sq. kms., which is comparable to Metro Vancouver’s total urban (developable) land area of 840 sq. km., if 554 sq. km. of the agricultural land reserve (farmland) and 1,347 sq. kms of protected conservation and recreation areas (reservoir watersheds, regional parks, floodplains, and ecologically sensitive areas) are excluded from the calculation. The City of Vancouver’s total land area is 114 sq. kms.

Singapore’s SkyTrain-like system called the MRT currently spans 203 kms across six lines with 122 stations, and they have ambitious expansion plans this decade and beyond.

singapore mrt map

Map of the Singapore MRT. (Singapore MRT)

Stockholm has a population of just under one million residents living within 188 sq. kms., 1.6 million residents within the “urban” area of 382 sq. kms., and 2.4 million residents across over 6,500 sq. kms. Metro Vancouver’s total land area is far smaller, but the total population is similar.

The Swedish capital has several modes of rail transport that blankets the entire region. This includes a 106-km-long subway system across seven lines with 100 stations, as well as nearly 300 kms of commuter rail and 40 km of light rail.

And the London Underground system alone — excluding the Docklands Light Railway, Overground, and new Crossrail — spans 400 kms along 11 lines with 270 stations.

Right from the start, these cities timed mobility pricing with dramatic major transportation infrastructure improvements. The Broadway Extension to Arbutus and the Expo Line extension in the South of Fraser fall quite short.

stockholm transit map

Map of Stockholm’s rail transit system, 2011. (Transit Maps)

london underground map

Map of the London Underground. (Transport For London)

For Metro Vancouver to take a truly big step towards this direction, it would need about $25 billion of additional investment in its public transit system after the completion of the two SkyTrain projects in 2025.

This includes the remainder of the Millennium Line extension from Arbutus Station to UBC, a new SkyTrain line along Hastings Street from Waterfront Station towards Burnaby, a new SkyTrain line along Arbutus Street that offers rail transit coverage deep into downtown Vancouver’s West End and reaches Marine Drive Station, light rail transit on the existing railway right-of-way along the Fraser River from Marine Drive Station to Coquitlam Central Station, an expansion of commuter rail across the Lower Mainland including an improved West Coast Express, upgraded bus services, and a North Shore SkyTrain line from downtown Vancouver to Lonsdale via a route that runs under Stanley Park and near the First Narrows.

The current idea of a Metro Core mobility pricing scheme would effectively reestablish the toll on the Lions Gate Bridge — a particularly unfair punitive measure on North Shore residents, who have limited feasible transportation options to get across.

There is already plenty of negative reinforcement with the existing three-lane bridge and the lack of any additional road infrastructure across Burrard Inlet since the 1957 completion of the Ironworkers Memorial Bridge.

A toll on the Lions Gate Bridge could also upset the equilibrium of vehicle traffic volumes on the North Shore, with more motorists going eastward and using the free crossing of the Ironworkers Memorial Bridge. The region saw this same pattern when tolls were in place on the Port Mann Bridge, with the Pattullo Bridge experiencing an increase in traffic until the tolls were removed.

And before COVID-19, public transit capacity was already struggling with fulfilling demand.

In a region where it could take two hours for far-flung suburban city residents to take public transit into the Metro Core, while a car drive is under an hour, these residents have every right to consider the tradeoffs and personal opportunity costs for what those time savings by car mean.

Many of these residents have also been pushed out by worsening housing affordability, only to find themselves having to pay their way to get back in to access the region’s concentration of opportunities and services that exist near and within the Metro Core.

You cannot price people out of a neighbourhood or city and penalize them daily for not being able to afford it, not to mention the fact that it would be a very depressing world where no one leaves a “15-minute walkshed” around where they live.

Traffic congestion into the Stanley Park Causeway leading to the Lions Gate Bridge. (Shutterstock)

These regional-scale businesses, attractions, and services in the Metro Core depend on the critical mass of the entire region’s population to support their viability and the mass employment they generate. They set up their presence downtown primarily to access the regional market, not the 15-minute walking distance market of 150,000 people.

Some supporters of the municipal government’s Metro Core mobility pricing scheme believe it will make downtown Vancouver a nicer place to live, work, and shop, but that is a very narrow focus and it is certainly not the issue we have today. Downtown Vancouver is already remarkably a highly walkable area, and generally a nice place to live. Instead, those who own and operate businesses, attractions, and services say what they need is the critical mass to survive.

But the critical mass is not just about offering accessibility to customer numbers, but access to the region’s workforce supply. Before COVID-19, businesses in and around the Metro Core struggled immensely with finding the employees to fill positions, especially low-barrier positions in restaurants and retail — jobs often filled by young people and lower-income immigrants.

On its part, the municipal government can also provide actual more affordable housing options by allowing further density that is comparable to the major developments emerging around SkyTrain stations in the suburban cities, which are essentially the spillover of demand and supply that is not being met within the borders of the City of Vancouver. It remains to be seen if the new Broadway Plan, set to be finalized in 2021, will provide the Central Broadway corridor with real density.

Like it or not, especially until far more public transit is provided, some of that critical mass has to come from people arriving by car.

And this is why offering attractive and effective alternatives matters so much, and why any mobility pricing system must come from the regional level of decision making. The problem is not with getting around within the Metro Core, which is what the City of Vancouver’s projects and initiatives have mainly addressed, but reaching it. To put it simply, those who live within or near the Metro Core already have it pretty good.

But offering real alternatives is more than just about functionality, it is also about promising these alternatives upfront so that there is public buy-in to the idea of mobility pricing. What do they get in return? Where are the carrots?

There is a reason why the region’s key business groups and goods movement stakeholders wholeheartedly supported regional mobility pricing under TransLink’s MIPC. The opposite can be said for the city’s Metro Core mobility pricing, with the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade, Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association, Robson Street Business Association, and Strathcona Business Improvement Association voicing their concerns over the negative impact it will have on businesses.

vancouver robson street businesss retail shops

Retail on Robson Street in downtown Vancouver’s West End neighbourhood. (Shutterstock)

MIPC considered a wide range of factors, not just emissions but also what is viable for the economy. Time and time again, the City of Vancouver has shown that it has a singular focus that ignores the importance of secondary effects, and it is no different with its approach for Metro Core mobility pricing.

Introducing the major policy idea of any sort of mobility pricing needs to be carefully thought and rolled out to the public on its own, not a surprise contained within the strategy of a “Climate Action Emergency Plan.”

This ham-fisted, gungho approach for mobility pricing, during the worst economic crisis since the Second World War, could also potentially setback the foundation and any goodwill built by MIPC and the regional public buy-in that is necessary for future regional mobility pricing.

Seven months into the pandemic, we have yet to see the worse of the economic impacts, nor the light of the end of the tunnel with health restrictions. And after reaching the end of that tunnel, there will still certainly be a years-long recovery process.

There is mass unemployment; businesses and many residents are worried about making it to the next week.

Before the pandemic, businesses were already facing a turbulent period with rising property taxes, rising rents, and the aforementioned workforce issues. Compound these structural issues with operating a business in Vancouver, and it amounts to the municipal government’s unwillingness and inability to provide businesses and working residents with the assurances and support they need during these sensitive and volatile times. They are certainly not looking for another variable that could throw off stability even further.

Downtown businesses, such as retail and restaurants, have been particularly hurt. Their clientele in large part depends on office workers, but overall office space occupancy is ranging just between 10% and 40%.

london congestion charge tolls

Congestion charge toll station in London, UK. (Shutterstock)

In Fall 2019, the City of Vancouver set forth another transportation policy on its own — a municipal business license and fee structure for ride-hailing operations within Vancouver. Their approach for a city-based license quickly triggered a domino effect across the region, as almost every other municipal government started approving their own municipal business license for ride-hailing, each with their own separate fees. If this archaic approach had remained, ride-hailing in Metro Vancouver would have been crippled beyond feasibility for the companies involved and usability for the general public.

All of this came to a halt when the provincial government warned it would take away the municipal government’s ability to issue business licenses for ride-hailing if the region failed to establish a coordinated approach. With its usual regional lens, TransLink warned the municipal governments the provincial government was increasingly inpatient, and ultimately the municipalities — under the guidance of the public transit authority — established a single regional inter-municipal business license and fee for ride-hailing in early 2020.

Fortunately, Metro Core mobility pricing faces several hurdles moving forward beyond this current city council. If city council decides to move forward with planning, the 2022 municipal election will double as a de facto referendum on mobility pricing.

The provincial government will also likely have a very strong position on this. Last we checked, the BC NDP majority government under Premier John Horgan has rejected tolls.

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