By Robbbie Webber
A new report released by the Vancouver, BC, Mobility Pricing Independent Commission does not provide a single solution for congestion and delay in Metro Vancouver, but it has undoubtedly generated the type of discussion the authors wanted. The report carefully lays out an argument for why the Vancouver region should institute a “decongestion charge,” essentially a fee to drive into and through the central city. It provides two options and calls for further study and work to fine-tune what type of pricing is appropriate and how fees will be implemented. The two options presented are a point charge—where drivers passing certain fixed points such as bridges or tunnels would pay a fee—and a zone-based charge that would base fees on distance traveled.
Congestion and the resulting delay and travel time unreliability are problems for many in the metro area, so regional mayors commissioned the study to look at how pricing access to the roads could help solve these problems. The metro area is expected to continue growing, and most leaders recognize that something must be done both to address congestion and raise funds for transportation improvements, but the solutions suggested by the commission shocked many.
The commission estimates that the fees would reduce congestion by 20-25 percent, increase travel time reliability by 20 percent, and raise from $1 to $1.6 billion per year. But the fees could cost the average household up to $2,700 per year for the point-based system or $1,700 for the distance option. Predictably, this has caused public backlash and discomfort among the politicians that commissioned the study.
The chair of the commission clearly knew the report would not be popular, as he included this statement in the accompanying cover letter:
It is easy to characterize a decongestion charge as a “money grab” or “just another tax.” The paradox is that the less you charge, the more it would be just that. The charge needs to be set at a level sufficient to unlock the considerable benefits of reduced congestion and more efficient mobility. That will also raise sufficient revenue to both invest in more affordable transportation options, reduce other costs of driving, and offset costs for people on low incomes, just as we do for many other priced goods like housing and power.
The report was commissioned in October 2017 by the Metro Vancouver Mayors’ Council on Regional Transportation and the TransLink Board of Directors. The commission was specifically asked to look at how paying for road use could play a role in addressing predicted transportation challenges as the region grows. It had three goals: reduce traffic congestion, promote fairness, and support transportation investments.
Much of the executive summary is a careful justification for instituting price signals to encourage people to not drive during peak hours, pointing out how a small number of additional drivers can cause delay for everyone on the road. The main report examines the pros and cons of the two fee options, pointing out that the zone-based option is more flexible, but the technology to make it feasible is not quite mature. A point-based fee could be implemented quickly, but would be harder to adjust to meet goals for decongestion.
The reception to the report has been decidedly chilly. Even the regional mayors who asked for the report issued statements that were cautious at best. One reason might be because Vancouver, unlike Stockholm and London—cities that have already instituted congestion charges—does not have a well-developed transit system in the suburbs to give commuters an alternative to driving. As part of public outreach, the commission found that congestion and the unreliability of travel time is already both frustrating to commuters and costly for the region. But in the past several years, tolls have been removed from several bridges by the provisional government and a transit referendum has been rejected by voters.
The report makes a good case that a decongestion charge will have multiple benefits. Not only will the fees support transportation investments such as much-needed transit improvements, but the price points will reduce congestion and increase travel time reliability. Whether there is the political will to take the leap and sufficient public frustration with congestion to try something new is still an open question.
Robbie Webber is a Senior Associate at SSTI.