Opinion: Port Mann Bridge tolling is a necessary evil

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New Port Mann Bridge Night View

IT TAKES POLITICAL COURAGE to introduce good public policy. The new Port Mann Bridge will join the recently completed Golden Ears Bridge as the Lower Mainland’s second tolled crossing. In a region that is faced with fiscal challenges of renewing and maintaining critical transportation infrastructure (roads, bridges, and public transit), road tolling can play a large part in solving funding issues and will also provide a means of curbing congestion, air pollution, and urban sprawl.

 

The New Tolled Port Mann Bridge

While the funding model for the new Port Mann Bridge is contentious and highly despised by drivers, it is a necessary evil to fund the renewal and maintenance of a major piece of the region’s aging road and bridge infrastructure. Tolls for the new $3.3-billion ten-lane bridge and 37-km Highway 1 upgrade (on either side of the bridge) were first announced in 2005 as part of the Ministry of Transportation’s Gateway Program on highway expansion. The actual construction cost of the entire project is $2.46-billion, while the remaining $840-million will go towards the maintenance of the bridge over its 40-year lifespan as well as the financing of the interest incurred by loans to build the project.

The new Port Mann Bridge will open to traffic and tolling by December 2012 and it stands as the world’s widest bridge (65.06-metres) according to the Guinness Book of World Records, far exceeding the previous record set by the famous Sydney Harbour Bridge (48.8-metres). The old adjacent five-lane bridge built in 1964 will be fully decommissioned by the end of 2014, it is currently by far the busiest bridge crossing in Western Canada with an average of 127,000 vehicle crossings per day.

The recent controversy over the new Port Mann Bridge road tolls is reminiscent of the debacle over BC HST, it is unfortunate that good public policy is once again overshadowed by pre-election and divisive partisan provincial politics. Plans for a tolled Port Mann bridge are nothing new, although its critics have made it seem otherwise. When the Gateway Program was still in its project definition phase more than 6 years ago, plans for a tolled bridge were highly publicized, with tolls to be at $2.50 (2005$) each way by a regular sized vehicle, and varying higher and lower rates for larger vehicles (trucks) and smaller vehicles (motorcycles). The only difference today is that the exact toll cost has been released.

Adjusted to 2012 inflation, the proposed $2.50 toll rate made in 2005 comes to $3.00 today. However, the $3.00 rate will not be implemented for a full year; as announced earlier this week, drivers will be given a interim year-long discount:

Drivers who register for a free windshield decal and tolling account by Feb. 28, 2013 will be guaranteed the half-price introductory toll rate for the first year. As a further incentive to register, drivers who sign up before Nov. 30, 2012 will receive a $30 credit on their account, equivalent to 20 free trips for passenger vehicles.

Registered users will also be eligible for various discounts and incentives, including a 25-per-cent discount during peak hours for HOV users, resulting in a reduced rate of $1.13. The introductory toll rate, $30 credit and other discounts provide an incentive for drivers to register for a free tolling account.

Registered accounts help Transportation Investment Corporation (TI Corp), the Provincial Crown corporation overseeing the project, to operate a lean, efficient tolling system, reducing the number of invoices mailed and associated administration costs. This keeps operating costs low, which in turn keeps tolls low.

TReO tolling account holders will experience the maximum benefits available to bridge users, including the lowest toll rate, access to all available discounts and easy on-line account management. Drivers who register for a decal by Feb. 28, 2013 will be able to lock in the reduced rate for a full year. Drivers who do not register by Feb. 28, or instead choose the pay-as-you-go option will have their toll rates increase to $3.00 on March 1, 2013.

You can now register for your free TReO tolling account and windshield transponder at the government’s new TReO website. Be sure to register before November 30, 2012 to receive a $30.00 credit on your account (equivalent to 20 free trips for regular passenger vehicles). It is highly suggested that you register as an account is completely free and provides you with discounts. Those who cross the Port Mann Bridge unregistered will pay a $5.30 tolling charge, unless they pay within a week the fee drops to $3.00.

More information on how the tolling system works can also be found at the TReO website. However, it should be noted that modern tolling systems do not require you to stop your vehicle like traditional tolling systems. Rather, it is an electronic tolling system: your free windshield transponder emits a radio signal whenever it crosses the electronic tolling detectors, and a toll will be automatically deducted from your account. For those without transponders, overhead cameras detect license plates and deduct from a pre-paid account linked to the license number. If no pre-paid account is found and a payment is not made within a week, an invoice will be sent charging $5.30 per crossing instead of the lower $3.00 rate. Further information on how to pay tolls can be found here.

During its first week of operations only, the new Port Mann Bridge will be untolled – free of charge to all vehicles. The free week-long period is meant to give commuters an opportunity to try the new 37-km road system, including the world’s widest bridge.

 

Road Tolling Basics: Why Is Port Mann Bridge Tolling Good Policy?

Given the implications to the entire region as a whole, the benefits of road tolling on the Port Mann Bridge – the largest and highest used crossing – are significant. Here are five main reasons:

  1. Reduced idling time from traffic and congestion means savings in fuel cost and reduced travel time. The new Port Mann bridge brings 10 new wide bridge lanes, a vast improvement from the 5 lanes of the old Port Mann Bridge. The highways on both north and south ends of the bridge have also been improved and widened with additional lanes for a stretch totalling 37-kms. Other improvements also include the massive new Cape Horn Interchange on the northern end of the new Port Mann Bridge, where Highway 1, Lougheed Highway and the Mary Hill Bypass converge. Altogether, additional capacity leads to less congestion, which in turn leads to less fuel consuming idling and faster travel times overall. The toll cost is balanced by the reduction in fuel consumption, the decrease in travel time, and the increase in road and bridge reliability. In this day and age, time is money; for both everyday commuters and the movement of goods, time spent in traffic and congestion is certainly not time well spent.
  2. It extends the duration of the transportation investment’s value. Road tolling is effectively a user fee, it extends the effectiveness and original goal of reducing congestion. Studies show that free crossings lead to the return of congestion much more quickly, whereas a tolled crossing would delay the onset of congestion and the growth of unsustainable car usage. This is quite important, given the economic costs of congestion and the fact that Vancouver is one of the most congested regions in North America.
  3. By reducing vehicle volume and usage, road tolling also lowers air pollution. This is an important aspect considering how much the region and the province prides itself to being environmentally conscious. Passenger vehicles are the greatest single source of air pollution in the Lower Mainland. It encourages commuters to find a different mode of transportation whether it be public transit or carpooling (rather than driving their own single-occupancy vehicles).
  4. By discouraging vehicle usage as the primary mode of transport, road tolling also shapes land use by curbing urban sprawl. Urban sprawl promotes an unhealthy sedentary lifestyle, with communities built on the deep reliance of cars rather than walking and cycling, which is more common in inner-city neighbourhoods. There is even a linkage between health issues like obesity and urban sprawl. As well, the low-density of urban sprawl is expensive for cities to build and maintain – there are high infrastructural costs associated with providing infrastructure for a small segment of the population located in a large but undense area. Low density and urban sprawl costs far more than its taxes produce. For this reason, apart from poor neighbourhood designs (cul-de-sacs instead of street grids and the lack of pedestrian sidewalks), the lack of population density also makes sprawling communities difficult and highly expensive to serve with public transit (given the low and highly subsidized ridership it creates). As urban sprawl grows farther, so do commute times, congestion, and greenhouse gases (from both the heat island emitted by inefficient buildings and growing car dependence).
  5. It finances the construction and maintenance of infrastructure. While gas taxes are arguably high in the region and British Columbia, they become a part of general revenues that are directed towards general expenditures – gas taxes are not solely used for paying transportation improvements and maintenance. For instance, the BC 6.67 cents/litre carbon tax on gasoline does not go towards transportation improvements. Taxes, whether they be gas taxes or other revenue streams like sales taxes, are not sufficient enough to pay for transportation improvements and maintenance: more revenue streams like road tolling are needed. With a construction cost of $2.46-billion, the new Port Mann Bridge and Highway 1 improvement is together the most expensive transportation infrastructure project undertaken in BC.
  6. It creates and maintains higher ridership levels on public transit. Without tolling on the Port Mann Bridge, it can be expected that ridership levels on public transit will significantly decrease, specifically on the SkyTrain Expo Line that serves the south of Fraser. Given the reduced ridership, it also makes bus service more costly, requiring more subsidization. Travel times via public bus are also slower with additional road traffic, higher travel times are a disincentive for using public transit.

 

A Good Case For Region-Wide Bridge Tolling

In conclusion, regional road tolling at major water crossings could provide the solution to many of the region’s woes by shaping sustainable growth as well as the financing of road network renewal and the expansion of public transit. The Port Mann Bridge tolls could be the second step (after the new Golden Ears Bridge tolls) towards a healthier, more sustainable, and economically productive Metro Vancouver. The same positive results (as outlined above) from tolling the Port Mann Bridge can also be applied for the Arthur Laing Bridge, Oak Street Bridge, Knight Street Bridge, Queensborough Bridge, George Massey Tunnel, Alex Fraser Bridge, Pattullo Bridge, Lions Gate Bridge, Ironworkers Second Narrows Bridge, and the new Pitt River Bridge.

However, it will take real leadership and political courage to make the difficult decisions required for a better and healthier future in Metro Vancouver. The positive results, and even presence of local population support, of congestion pricing are highly visible in cities such as London, Singapore and, particularly, Stockholm. Vancouver can be more similarly compared with the Stockholm experiment. Like Stockholm, Vancouver is surrounded by waterways that act as natural geographic barriers. As a result, a significantly less tolling infrastructure is needed, thus decreasing infrastructural costs of tolling implementation and increasing the economies of scale of tolling operations and maintenance. For instance, because of its geography and complex web of ancient streets, London has over 200 routes tolled in order for congestion pricing to be logistically effective. Comparatively, similar to Metro Vancouver’s 11 major bridges and sole tunnel, Stockholm has just 18 routes into the city (all of which are tolled). The results of Stockholm’s new road pricing system far exceeded original expectations.

Original predictions pegged Stockholm’s traffic decrease following toll implementation to be at between 10-15%, however, the actual results were at least 22% at the toll cordon (or a decrease of about 100,000 trips for the region of 1.2-million residents). As well, accessibility and travel times improved as a result of the reduction in vehicle traffic. This had a major positive impact on the reliability of travel times, in that one could be more certain that their journey would take an expected amount of time. Road safety also improved (less vehicle accidents), air pollutants took a notable decrease, and public transit ridership greatly increased.

In all of these cities, regional road tolling is intrinsically linked with continued major projects to improve and expand public transit – to give commuters a feasible and attractive alternative means of transport. Toll revenues are used to maintain, improve and expand the public transit infrastructure of these regions, and it has led to high double-digit transit ridership growth in these cities. In Metro Vancouver, a similar approach would be needed to win the support needed for such an undertaking, with specific focus on south of Fraser areas (such as Surrey) that are grossly underserved by public transit. For the region’s road infrastructure, like the new Port Mann Bridge and recently built Golden Ears Bridge, tolls are also feasible revenue sources to fund the much-needed replacements of the antiquated Pattullo Bridge and George Massey Tunnel. The 1937-built bridge and 1959-built tunnel are both four-lane routes that do not serve the region’s current capacity needs and were designed with grossly outdated seismic codes.

Over the interim term, we may also realize that tolls on the currently free cross-Fraser bridges may be needed to balance out the traffic and potential heading towards these untolled routes. With British Columbia’s busiest road and bridge route tolled, drivers may avoid Highway 1 and the new Port Mann Bridge altogether and instead choose other nearby parallel routes such as the new Pitt River Bridge and the aging Pattullo Bridge. This could cause further congestion for these two bridges (particularly for the Pattullo, which has already reached capacity with its 4 lane structure and is known for its safety issues when at capacity), where anticipated traffic levels on the new Port Mann Bridge may be below expectations and could even result in lower than anticipated toll revenues.

When Washington State began tolling its floating bridge on State Route-520, traffic plummeted far below original forecasts. Like the Port Mann Bridge, the aging SR-520 route bridge was replaced and tolls were implemented to finance construction and maintenance costs. Varying throughout the time of day, but averaging at about $3.00 per vehicle, the toll rates for the new six-lane SR-520 bridge are similar to those being proposed for the new Port Mann Bridge. Prior to the opening of the replacement bridge along the route, the old untolled SR-520 bridge averaged about 100,000 vehicles per weekday. For the new tolled bridge, estimates had pegged SR-520 traffic to range between 90,000-98,000 vehicles per day following opening. However, during the first six months of tolling, average weekday traffic on the replacement SR-520 was just 63,500 per day and less than 57,000 when weekends were included. Instead of traveling across the newly tolled SR-520 bridge, Puget Sound commuters instead chose to utilize free untolled parallel crossings nearby. The result, much lower than expected traffic volumes and toll revenues.

Will the newly tolled Port Mann Bridge face the same scenario of commuters flocking to the untolled Pitt River and Pattullo Bridges? Only time will tell, but it would certainly make logical sense given the close proximity of these two alternate parallel routes across the Fraser River. It certainly adds on to the case for regional road tolling, beginning with the tolling of all crossings along the Fraser River.

 

Written by Kenneth Chan, a Columnist at Vancity Buzz. Follow me on Twitter: @kjmagine

Featured image credit: PhotoDG

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Kenneth Chan Deputy Editor & Social Media Manager at Vancity Buzz. He covers stories pertaining to local architecture, urban issues, politics, business, retail, economic development, transportation, infrastructure, and anything else that makes a difference in the lives of Vancouverites. Kenneth is also a Co-Founder of New Year's Eve Vancouver. Connect with him at kenneth[at]vancitybuzz.com
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