Time to stop tolling the poor

Just to prove I am an equal-opportunity critic, I want to relate a conversation I had with Bill Harper, Incumbent and Candidate for Council. Bill is from the other end of the political spectrum than James Crosty and John Ashdown, in that old-fashioned Labour/Left v. Business/Right way of looking at politics.

At the Queens Park Residents Association all-candidates slap ‘n’ giggle, Harper came out strongly against tolling any future the Pattullo bridge replacement. Although he only had 30 seconds to talk on the topic, the argument (if you afford me the right to paraphrase) is that tolls take us towards a regime where only the rich can use a bridge, and the poor are excluded from using it.

In the glad-handing session after the debate, I commented to Bill that we are going to have to agree to disagree on the tolls issue, and to his credit, he looked me right in the eye and said “Why?” In the ensuing discussion, Bill linked tolls on the bridge to the Smart Meter program and the introduction of water meters. His opposition stems from the ideological point that pay-as-you-go benefits the rich and is punitive to the poor: “That is BC Liberal Policy, and I don’t agree”.

I strongly disagree with Bill on this point.

One of the first principles of responsible resource management is that the user pays for the amount of that resource they use. A fisherman who removes 10 tonnes of salmon from the Fraser River cannot pay the same licensing fee for that resource extraction as a person catching a single salmon. A company logging 500 Hectares of forest cannot pay the same stumpage fee as a company logging a single hectare.

This goes the same for resources that we are delivered through our utility systems. Persons should be (and are) charged for electricity use per Kw/h. It is not only fundamentally fair, it encourages responsible use of the resource, provides economic incentive to taking measures to reduce use, it is the first step in managing the resource responsibly. The same goes for our water and garbage utilities: it angers me to no end that I pay the same to toss away my once-every-month-half-full garbage bin as the guy next door who overloads his bin every week: the City pays per tonne to pick up and get rid of the stuff, they should be charging us per tonne to remove it. I am subsidizing the guy who is being wasteful with a limited resource.

Municipal water may be the worst example of this. As a region, we spend more than $200 Million every year to collect, treat, and pump almost 400 Million cubic metres of water to customers who, in the summer months, use almost half of that water to keep their lawns green. There is no built-in incentive to reduce this usage unless the use is metered, and with our population expanding, the capital cost of expanding our system is going to push those costs up. The fundamental question of fairness is why are the poor living on small lots or in apartments subsidizing the expansive green lawns of the rich?

Now, in the old-school socialist mindset, everything I wrote above is bullocks, because the poor have the same right to water and electricity as the rich, and if we treat it like a commodity, they will have to go without. The problem is, the cost of providing that utility will mean they have to go without unless we get a handle on the cost of providing it!

If we are going to build a socially, economic, and environmentally sustainable community, the first step is to get a handle on our resource use. Fundamentally, that will need to rely on pay-as-you-go for utilities like water, electricity, and solid waste. I would throw transportation infrastructure into that pile.

If we are concerned about the cost of access being too high for the poorest in society, then we need to develop programs to see that they are provided reasonable access at affordable rates. Frankly, the street homeless don’t care how a utility charges landowners for their water. If there are working poor and pensioners who are finding themselves in a difficult position paying their water bill, we need programs to help with that (such as the City’s existing program to provide utility rate discounts to seniors living alone). What will not help these people is basing their annual water bill on their neighbour’s decision to keep their 1-acre of grass out front mossy green during the hottest summer drought.

The Tragedy of the Commons is not a solution to affordability.

Back to Bridges

One point of tolling the bridge is to bring the cost of using one piece of infrastructure into line with the cost using the alternatives. I pay a toll every time I get on a Skytrain. I pay an extra toll every time I take a bus over a bridge (as that represents a Zone Change, with the attached surcharge). If TransLink is going to be given the task of managing the region’s transportation system, bridges, major road networks, and transit, then the toll to use that service should be equal. I need to pay $3.75 to ride one station from Columbia Street to King George, I don’t see why drivers should pay less to go that distance because they can afford a car.

However, the more pressing reason to have this discussion in New Westminster is Transportation Demand Management. We learned from the Golden Ears Bridge that people will drive a long way to avoid a toll, even irrationally far, because we undervalue their time and the cost of the gas in our tanks (even as we complain about the price – the cognitive dissonance of the common driver is amazing – and I put myself in that same category when I am driving!). When the New Gordon Campbell Port Mann Bridge costs $4 to cross, and the Pattullo is free: a higher proportion of people are going to take the cheap route around, and New Westminster’s traffic will worsen, creating more incentive to erode our land base with more lanes choked with traffic, and keeping the unsustainable cycle going.

I’ll blog more about the #1 issue in New Westminster (according to most Council candidates) in a few days

One comment on “Time to stop tolling the poor

  1. Shame on Bill for beating the dead horse of tolling-is-bad-for-poor-people. No wonder nothing changes around here.

    Anyone who drives on the road is paying a toll of almost $10,000 per year (after tax $) just to own and operate the car they need to use the road. And that’s after a large subsidy is provided through multiple layers of governments. Tolling the road would represent a very small fraction of what it costs to drive on the road. If Bill is so concerned about poor people he’d better put his efforts into giving people workable alternatives to driving. He may even make a dent in the traffic “problem” in doing so…

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