The $1 Toll – Updated!

When the media start talking about bridges and roads and transit and referenda and all the stuff that is rolled into the Lower Mainland and BC’s plan to move people about, there is a common theme that arises. Go to any recent on-line story about these subjects, and someone will inevitably comment that the “solution” is to toll all of the bridges equally, the number usually proffered is $1 per bridge. This is suggested as being more “fair” than just putting these more expensive tolls ($3-$4) on the newer bridges.

That usually gets shouted down in the comments when someone else comes along and says any toll at all is a “cash grab” and there is no way a piece of infrastructure should be paid for by the people who use it, and the comment thread goes from there.

Example, Example, Example.

There is rarely any deeper analysis of that first idea. What happens if we toll all the major bridges at $1 a crossing? What problem does this “fair” solution solve?

First we need to define our terms. When people talk about tolling “all the bridges”, they surely don’t mean the bridge on Gaglardi Way that spans the Brunette River or the King Edward Overpass, but they likely would include the two North Shore crossings and the major crossings of the Fraser (Golden Ears, Port Mann, Pattullo, Alex Fraser, and Massey). Ambitious tollers might include the Pitt River and the Knight, and really, you couldn’t do the Knight without doing the Oak and Laing as well (lets assume the Queensborough is spared, as it is really an access to the Alex Fraser or one of the other crossings)

Seeing as how the False Creek bridges (Cambie, Granville, and Burrard) belong to the City of Vancouver, and the Middle Arm bridges (Moray, No. 2 Road, Dinsmore, and Sea Island) to the City of Richmond, it is pretty unlikely they could be included in any regional tolling scheme.

This raises an interesting jurisdictional issue, especially around Richmond. Most of the bridges belong to the BC Ministry of Transportation, so tolling could be accomplished with a wave of a Minister’s hand, but three (Golden Ears, Pattullo, and Knight) belong to TransLink, and the Laing belongs to YVR, so some interesting revenue-sharing complications would ensue.

But let’s put those complications aside for a moment, and look purely at the revenue side. Traffic counts for most of those bridges are available from the MoTI website, and it took only a bit of digging to find the numbers for the rest. Let’s use 2012 traffic numbers, as they are the most recent available and complete. Here is the average daily vehicle count on the bridges:

Bridge           Operator    Daily Vehicles
Golden Ears   TransLink     30,000
Port Mann     TI Group     110,047
Pattullo         TransLink     65,000
Alex Fraser    MoTI           105,108
Massey          MoTI             81,729
Lions Gate    MoTI             60,285
Ironworkers  MoTI           115,331
Pitt River      MoTI             80,000
Laing             YVR              70,000
Oak               MoTI             68,150
Knight           TransLink     90,000
                     Total:          875,650

So if you slapped a $1 toll on all 8 “major” bridges (including the Pitt River), you are looking at $650,000 per day in revenue, 365 days a year. Add the jurisdictionally-problematic North Arm bridges between Richmond and Vancouver and that number boosts to $876,000. Annually, this works out to just under $240 Million and $320 Million per year.

Wow, that’s a lot of money. Except two of those bridges already collect tolls ranging from $2.50 to $9.00, depending on the vehicle type. Although neither bridge is yet reaching its “revenue goal”, the amount of toll revenue promised the contractor at Port Mann is about $184 Million, and for the Golden Ears, $38 Million. Assuming that TransLink and the Ministry could somehow break these long-term contracts, we would need to remove this $222 Million from our net increase in revenue, bringing it down to less than $100 Million. Let’s ignore, for the benefit of the argument, the cost of setting up and running all of these tolling locations.

To put that $100 Million into perspective, TransLink collects $450 Million in fare revenue every year from people riding public transit, which is about a third of its annual $1,400 Million operational budget. The tolling revenue at $1 per car only represents about 7% of the TransLink operational budget: hardly enough to fund even the most modest growth of the transit system.

The fairness or palatability of $1 tolls on all bridges seems less relevant when you realize it will hardly make a dent in the money we need in this region to build a reliable transit system, never mind building more bridges and lanes of highways (upwards towards 3,700km of new roads!) that will be required to support the region’s growth if we don’t build a more robust transit system.

This is why municipalities with region-wide bridge-tolling policies, like San Francisco or New York, are charging $5- $15 to use the bridges. If we are going to talk about a “fair toll on all bridges”, it most certainly won’t be $1. The numbers don’t work.

Despite the positive response I got for doing a little bit of basic math with publicly-available data, I was not surprised to hear the “$1 Toll Everywhere” suggested again as the panacea to TransLink funding on the CBC “Early Edition” this morning. This was only shocking because it was being put out by Colin Hansen (the man who brought us the HST debacle, and should know a little about referenda), only to be immediately supported by Moe Sihota. Neither stopped to think if a “toll under a dollar” was going to actually generate any meaningful revenue.
Alas, that is the state of political journalism in 2014. A series of he-said she-said talking point arguments, no-one doing basic fact-checking.
Regional Transportation rabble-rouser Eric Doherty on another forum asked an important question in relation to the “$1 Toll Everywhere” Plan: What does it cost to set up a toll collection system? Installing toll collection infrastructure on 11 bridges, and the bureaucracy to run it, would surely cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and would cost tens of millions a year to operate. If it takes three years to pay off the toll collection system, and another 20% of our $1 Toll is lost to overhead- the net revenue numbers get even worse.

8 comments on “The $1 Toll – Updated!

  1. I didn’t think it was a question of fairness. I thought it was a matter of trying not to skew traffic patterns so that tolled crossings are underutilized whilst untolled ones (and their connecting roads) are overly congested. Not that I have the answer to that!

  2. You forgot that Translink also had the Canoe Pass swing bridge to Westham Island downloaded to it.

    But you also seem to ignore all the trips that occur in the region that do not cross any bridges – some of them quite long. Why do people commuting from Coquitlam to UBC not pay anything under this scheme? Or Aldergrove to Ladner? If this idea is supposed to be egalitarian it seems quite biased to me.

  3. Stephen:
    on point #1: Yeah, I’m not sure the <100 cars a day crossing the Westham Island Bridge (name?) would really change the numbers all that much.

    On point #2: Agree 100%. Part of the point of my post was that the alleged “fair and easy solution” of $1 tolls all around is neither easy, nor a solution. You rightly point out it also isn’t “fair”.

  4. Also, a $1 across-the-board, all-day toll does nothing in the area of demand management. If you want to reduce peak congestion, then the tolls should be variable, say, $3 at the worst bridges during the am/pm peaks, $2 at the shoulders, and $1 on weekends, and evenings. If we can ‘flatten the peaks’, even a bit, then we can reduce the worst of the congestion, improve travel times, and cut down the wear and tear on the infrastructure. I would also suggest HOV lanes on all new bridges and HOV queue-jumper lanes on the approaches to the older bridges. HOV users pay the $1 rate regardless of the time.
    With these two improvements, then we address the temporal peaks, and make some attempt to get people out of single-occupant vehicles.

  5. If you vary the toll pricing to hit hardest those who have no choice but to commute at a certain time, then that is as unfair as only tolling south of the Fraser crossings and leaving the North Shore crossings free. Not everyone has the luxury of working from home, or having no time clock to punch.

    The funds raised from a dollar crossing though won’t go far to pay for all the projects needed. But at two dollars a crossing each way, that is still a thousand dollar after tax yearly hit on many commuters. And again, hardly fair for those commuters who don’t have to cross a bridge. Living in Vancouver and rich enough to be able to afford to buy there? Bonus, you “save’ a thousand dollars a year.

    Because of all of the above, I expect we may see a combination of tax methods to continue, in an attempt to get money from as much of us as possible. I think universal bridge tolling is a go, but the gas tax, and property tax surcharge will continue. And for those who think they can park their cars or scoot around the bridges, there will no doubt be some sort of road pricing and insurance renewal surcharge. .

  6. To anonymous (Jan 18), no the tolls won’t solve the funding crisis for transportation in the region. A wise friend once said to me, you can either have a taxation policy to influence behaviour or to raise funds, but not both. If you’re successful at changing behaviour, the funds will dry up. Tolls on all bridges (well, no tolls and straight mileage pricing would be more equitable) would be great for demand management, making people pay for the services they use (something the right, supposedly, is so big on). It would also solve the issue of loss of revenue from cross border gas buyers. But it won’t solve the funding issue.

    What needs to happen is what occurs in every other western nation, higher levels of government have to fund transportation through the progressive income tax system, revenues that are actually linked to what people can afford rather than simply based on their postal code. However for the neo-cons in power at the provincial and federal levels this is ideologically distasteful, and ideology seems to win over fact and reason these days. They’d rather point the finger, shift the burden on to those middle and lower income people who are already struggling, and simply kick the can down the road longer without addressing the issue in a meaningful way.

    But hey, I guess Surrey is getting exactly what they voted for, a government that is perfectly content with shiny new, $5 round trip bridges rather than a modern, sustainable transportation system paid for in an equitable fashion. I’ve said for years as a upper middle class income earner I will *gladly* pay more income tax to help build rapid transit in Surrey (and the Broadway Subway), but… the people have spoken, and that was for $5 trips over a bridge…

    Translink has issues, there’s no doubt of that. But multiple audits have shown it is a highly efficient and lean organization, and overall gets good value for money. There is little room left for “cost savings” and “efficiencies,” certainly not to the amount required to address our transportation issues. If you look at all the Translink boondoggles over the past few years for the most part they have not been projects Translink has elected do undertake themselves, they’ve been pushed on them by the provincial government. Falcongates and the whole Compass project (which will never pay for itself with any gain in loss revenue), that was a Kevin Falcon pet project because the KPMG revenue loss numbers didn’t “feel” right to him and the only business case from Translink was “the feds and province are giving us money.” The empty park and ride in White Rock, first, heaven forbid people using the lot pay for it, but if you read carefully the *province* built for that lot, not Translink. The under-built Canada Line, it was the *province* that forced a P3 on Translink for the project, with a company now banned for 10 years from bidding on World Bank projects. So next time you’re picking up a rock to throw at Translink, ponder if they’re the right target or if it should be their political masters in Victoria, who yet again are to blame for so much of this mess we find ourselves in. Thank’s Christy, what a stellar “leadership” job you’re doing.

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