$1 Tolls: still not enough

I’m going to avoid being critical of Mayor Jackson, because I think her accepting the idea of road pricing as a Transportation Demand Management method (even in this watered down and ineffective format) is a sign of progress regionally.

I am going to be critical of the regional media for their lack of analysis in reporting this story. It is almost as if the story wasn’t “reported” at all, but instead the press release was repeated, sometimes with a few clauses moved around, with the most minimal amount of background (“the tunnel needs replacing!”) and no actual analysis. I cannot find a single report where a member of the esteemed press even checked the math.

Here is the math the Mayor provided in her press release:

That argument in the Mayor’s release was that $1 tolls would raise close to $300 Million (not the “$348 Million” reported by one local print media source) to pay for the local government portion of the Mayor’s Plan. Aside from a few of the questionable statements in that release (an increase of 20,000 cars a day does not suggest people are “avoiding” the Pattullo Bridge), you would think reporters would check the base premise. Is spending an hour with Google and a spreadsheet really too much to ask before the story is filed?

Lucky, I had an hour in the evening to sit down and compare this report to my earlier analysis that did get a little notice a couple of years ago, the last time this idea came up. So here’s the kind of analysis I would want to read in the media, if I felt it was doing its job.

The screenline numbers from 2011 used by Delta for traffic count simply do not reflect the reality of bridge use in 2015. I was able to throw this table together based on a bit of Google searching, and note every number is a hyperlink that connects you with the actual official traffic count source of data (for the crossings where such a thing exists).

Delta data: 2015 January 2015 September 2014 Annual
Laing 79000 79000 79000 79000 79000 79000
Oak 88000 69166 65069 75043 71779 67376
Knight 96000 96000 96000 96000 96000 96000
GMT 89000 77306 71633 87037 82531 79105
Qboro 88000 79724 73739 87113 82706 80108
Fraser 117000 113496 103281 121079 113984 107785
Pattullo 68000 72985 78043 83598 79633 68000
Port Mann 112000 96098 87905 106378 100608 94986
Pitt 79000 79000 79000 79000 79000 79000
GEB 30000 34520 34520 34520 34520 32054
Lions Gate 63000 58857 56918 63137 61357 60757
IWMSNC 127000 120600 112697 129971 125220 117854
Total daily crosings: 1,036,000 976,752 937,805 1,041,876 1,006,338 962,025
x 365 days: 378 357 342 380 367 351

The Golden Ears Bridge data is less certain, as it comes from TransLink financial documents, and is not collected with the rigour of the Ministry of Transportation data. The Pattullo data is horribly complicated in its reporting, but available as a daily number, not as an annual average. For the Knight, the Laing, and the Pitt River, I could find no useful data. Anything I found lacked a link to who collected the data, and was too old to be reliable. For those bridges, I projected the TransLink screenline data that the Mayor of Delta used.

How much traffic you count depends on when you count it (no surprise!). The biggest number (378 Million crossings annually) is a made-up number that projected the annual weekday traffic (AWD = average week day) over the entire week. As weekend traffic is generally 20-25% lower than weekday, that automatically gives you an inflated number, so for the purposes of projecting toll revenue, you are better to use ADT – average daily traffic. It also depends if you pick a winter, summer or fall day (with fall being the busiest urban travel season). That is why I listed both January and September data for 2015.

The last year for which the MoTI provides Annual Average Daily Traffic data is 2014. This number best balances out weekdays, holidays, seasons, and other shifts. It is important to note that every bridge with good traffic count data from MOTI has a significantly lower amount of traffic than the 2011 data used by Delta to make their case. I’m amazed that this point was not noticed by any media).

Regardless, using the concise MOTI data as the best regional and pan-seasonal effort where available, and the likely inflated Delta/TransLink numbers where it isn’t, the actual number is somewhere less than 1 million trips per day, and less than $350 Million with perfect across-the-board $1 tolling.

That hefty chunk of change looks good if it ignores the issue of what to do with the existing tolls on the Port Mann and Golden Ears. If they are reduced to $1 and included in this analysis, then we have to account for the $164 Million (2014 estimate) collected from those bridges in the current regime. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that neither bridge is collecting enough toll revenue right now to cover their financing costs, and the concessionaires want to keep getting paid.

There would be many things nibbling away at the remaining $186 Million, including the cost of setting up the tolling system and the cost of administering the tolls. Based on the TREO model, and their most recent Financial Reporting, they spend about $16Million collecting $120Million, so we will be conservative and call that 12% overhead not including the capital cost of setting up the system. Giving a generous benefit of doubt, I’m going to assume they can collect a $1 toll three times more efficiently than a $3 toll, but still getting us down to about $160Million.

There will also need to be some discussion with the owners of several bridges, as the Pattullo (see below) and Knight belong to TransLink, and the Laing belongs to the Federal Government through the Airport Authority. With all due respect to the Airport’s sense of charity, they are not likely to let someone else collect revenue from their customers on a piece of their infrastructure without some form of compensation.

And finally, it raises the uncomfortable question of how much of this revenue goes towards replacement of the Pattullo Bridge and Massey Tunnel. The Pattullo is part of the Mayor’s Plan, and was slated to be funded by a toll that is similar to the one on the Port Mann. With that idea now replaced by regional $1 tolls, the revenue required to cover the financing for that >$1 Billion project will need to be drawn from an ever-dwindling revenue stream.

The proposed $3.5Billion replacement for the Massey Tunnel, a project the Mayor of Delta is almost single-handedly in support of, would surely eat up more than the remaining revenue from the regional $1 toll. It is not part of the Mayor’s Plan, and it is hard to see the Mayors of the region agreeing to divert all of the regional tolling revenue to that one project when it does nothing to address the rapid transit and bus service improvements the region desperately needs. Not to mention any improvements to the North Shore…

So $1 a crossing is far from a panacea, but this discussion may lead us in the right direction. Tolling many crossings and sharing the revenue as part of a truly integrated regional transportation infrastructure investment plan (which is what the Mayor’s Plan is) is not in itself a bad idea. Once the infrastructure is in place, then time-of-day tolling shifts and other TDM measures can be put in to better manage demand, and even take away the imagined “need” for 10 more lanes of car traffic crossing the Fraser River.

3 comments on “$1 Tolls: still not enough

  1. Another big problem, amongst others in this plan, is that it does not fairly distribute the burden on all Lower Mainland residents. I notice that nobody seems to think that the Burrard, Granville, Cambie, No. 2 Road, Dinsmore or either of the Moray Channel Bridges should be tolled. Therefore, if your objective is downtown Vancouver, all residents of Vancouver, Burnaby, Port Moody, New Westminster and Coquitlam are exempt from tolls. Ditto for any Richmond resident working at YVR. And yet, their cars place as much stress on the infrastructure and contribute to congestion/GHG emissions as a car coming from across the Fraser or Burrard Inlet.

    A true distance-based mobility fee is the fairest way to go. It’s true that cost and technology issues must be sorted out, but it’s better to work towards a fair and effective method, rather than accept a half-baked solution.

    1. A bridge is a bridge is a bridge. The math assumes $1 tolls for all vehicles, why? Trucks pay more now, what about bikes?

    2. With respect to the False Creek bridges, they were bought, paid for, and now maintained by the taxpayers of Vancouver. Just like the Arthur Laing, the “owners” of said bridge have little incentive to start tolling them and distributing that revenue elsewhere.

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