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Border tolls could claw back leaking gas tax, summit hears

Might drivers have to pay a toll just before they cross the border? That
Might drivers have to pay a toll just before they cross the border? That's one of the ideas floated Friday at a summit on road pricing in Metro Vancouver.
— image credit: Black Press file photo

If Metro Vancouver is headed toward a system of road pricing, Eric Doherty has a provocative recommendation.

Toll all the border crossings first so drivers who nip across the line to buy cheap gas and avoid paying fuel tax to TransLink as well as B.C.'s carbon tax would have less reason to do so.

The Vancouver transportation planner wasn't joking Friday when he raised the idea at SFU's Moving in Metro summit on mobility pricing.

One of the problems confronting TransLink is that its revenue from the 17-cent-a-litre gas tax is declining, in part because of cross-border gas tax dodgers.

"There's a perception that whatever we do needs to be fair," Doherty said. "And it's not fair that people are evading paying their fair share of taxes."

A toll charged on southbound roads just before the border would raise much-needed funds – which summit participant Richard Campbell said might be devoted to Highway 99 improvements – and TransLink would likely also collect more in gas tax.

Advocates predict there would be other benefits of a border toll.

"You'd see reduced congestion," Doherty said, noting people with more legitimate reasons to visit the U.S. would have shorter waits. "And we'd see reduced pollution because people wouldn't be making these unnecessary trips, largely in fuel inefficient vehicles."

It would also deal a blow to cross-border shopping, which cuts into provincial and federal tax revenue and undermines local businesses and local jobs.

A case for road safety could even be made if fewer vehicles come back across the border packed full of gas jugs.

Unlike blanket tolls elsewhere, Doherty sees fewer grounds for complaint.

"The people who do this are not the poorest of the poor," he said of cross-border shoppers. "If you can afford it, you should pay."

Robin Lindsey, professor of transportation and logistics at UBC's Sauder School of Business, said he wouldn't want to see such a toll morph into a surrogate method of collecting customs tariffs, which are frequently waived by Canadian border personnel due to the heavy volume of shoppers crossing at popular times.

Many road pricing options, no clear winner

No clear consensus emerged at the summit of what type of road pricing scheme might be the best fit for Metro Vancouver.

Lindsey said a system of small $1 tolls on all the region's bridges might be most logical, rather than larger tolls just on newly rebuilt crossings that are increasingly seen as unfair.

A daily cap could limit how much each driver might pay, but he noted the benefits of congestion control would be undermined if many people reach the maximum and have no disincentive to make extra trips.

Bridge-only tolling would face its own fairness complaints – Richmond residents would have to pay to exit their city while long trips could be made toll-free on the Burrard Peninsula (Port Coquitlam to UBC) or South of the Fraser (Fort Langley to Tsawwassen).

To make even those drivers pay, a comprehensive road pricing system would be needed, potentially by a GPS system of tracking vehicles and charging them accordingly, based on their length of trip and time of day.

Lindsey said economists consider road pricing a "no brainer" because charges that fluctuate according to time of day can encourage enough drivers to travel at off-peak times, take transit or car-pool, making traffic flow more efficiently for all.

Besides the benefit of fewer traffic jams, the region needs to raise billions of dollars to pay for transit expansion as well as new bridges replacing the Pattullo Bridge and Massey Tunnel.

Transportation Minister Todd Stone has promised a review of B.C.'s tolling policy, noting simply tolling the new bridges won't be fair and may force a hard look at reform.

Other road pricing system variants include a congestion charge that tolls drivers to enter the inner city – congestion dropped 20 per cent in Stockholm and 30 per cent in London after such schemes were introduced there.

High Occupancy/Tolled (HOT) lanes would charge a toll to lone drivers to use HOV lanes.

It would have limited benefit in Metro Vancouver, but would offer drivers a clear choice – sit in congested regular lanes and wait or pay to zoom ahead.

Gateway Council executive director Bob Wilds, whose group includes port users, said they're open to examining road pricing, but added the big question remains what it would look like.

"Is it tolls on all the bridges? Pay to use HOV lanes? Pay for distance travelled? Peak hour charges? Or vehicle levies? Or is it all or some combination of the above?"

He said any pursuit of road pricing looks like it will be a lengthy process, while the region needs investment now.

The best short-term solution, Wilds said, may be to bring in a vehicle levy now and as it generates needed revenue begin to look at reducing TransLink's gas tax, which might help win public support and buy time to figure out a viable road pricing option.

Experts predict public opposition will be intense.

Metro Vancouver Mayors' Council chair Richard Walton said the challenge will be getting people to shift their thinking and understand the traffic control benefits that can come with road pricing.

"You're not paying a tax," Walton said. "You're buying time and you're buying road space."

He and others said it may be best to prove the concept's value by conducting a large scale trial ahead of any referendum – that's what Stockholm did and even then it barely passed.

Robin Lindsey, professor at UBC's Sauder School of Business, speaking Friday at the Wosk Centre for Dialogue in downtown Vancouver, where road pricing was discussed at the SFU-organized Moving In Metro summit. Photo: Jeff Nagel / Black Press

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