Congestion pricing would help solve our traffic woes

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Appeared in the Vancouver Sun

As anyone who regularly commutes on Metro Vancouver highways will tell you, traffic congestion is a significant problem. Commuters end up sitting in their cars rather than spending time with their families or doing other valuable things.

To tackle this problem, Metro Vancouver Mayors’ Council on Regional Transportation last month hit on the one obvious solution that has worked elsewhere: a comprehensive system of bridge and road tolls during peak periods, also referred to as congestion pricing. Such a policy would raise revenues while reducing traffic congestion, resulting in shorter, more consistent commute times.

Unfortunately, Blair Lekstrom , BC Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure, rejected the proposal, likely because aside from congestion pricing, it also included an increased gas tax, a vehicle registration fee, and a regional carbon tax to fund additional investments in public transit.

But in rejecting the entire proposal, Minister Lekstrom dismissed the best policy prescription for Metro Vancouver’s traffic and transit woes: congestion pricing.

Currently Translink is funded through property taxes and a tax on gasoline. Although property taxes, gasoline taxes and vehicle registration fees may be effective at raising revenue, they do little to reduce congestion during peak periods. Whereas, implementing a system of congestion-based road and bridge tolls will raise revenue while significantly reducing traffic congestion during peak periods.

Recent research by University of Toronto economists Mathew Turner and Gilles Duranton published in the preeminent economics journal, the American Economic Review, suggests that the only way to reduce traffic congestion is through road pricing. They analyze highway traffic and census data from the United States between 1983 and 2003 and find that neither building more highways nor building more public transit result in decreased congestion. The logic behind their results is that building either highways or public transit may initially result in smoother commutes, but over time those smoother commutes provide incentive for people to change behavior and they decide to drive. Eventually the congestion is back to the level it originally was at or worse. They conclude that only pricing can solve traffic congestion problems.

Congestion pricing provides an incentive for motorists to change their commuting behavior. When faced with tolls during peak periods, many commuters will choose to flex their work hours to avoid peak periods, take public transit, telecommute, or look for work closer to home. People may also choose to commute as usual, but they will now benefit from shorter commute times. Pricing our collective resources appropriately allows us to use them more efficiently, i.e., less people trapped in traffic allowing them to do more productive things.

Congestion pricing has been implemented in world class cities such as London and New York with tremendous success. Not only has congestion pricing reduced traffic congestion in these cities, it has also resulted in shorter and more consistent travel times for commuters.

Some commentators have argued that Metro Vancouver does not need a complicated experiment with congestion pricing. However, the reality is that implementation of a peak period tolling system would be quite simple with current technology. Toll cameras and transponder readers can be implemented easily at many congestion points, such as the Massey Tunnel or the Oak Street Bridge. Furthermore, HOV lanes can be converted to toll lanes using transponders (exceptions can be provided to registered carpools and buses if so desired).

Critics also argue that congestion pricing unduly hurts low-income drivers, and therefore should not be implemented. However, other jurisdictions that have implemented congestion pricing have used some of the revenues to fund investments in improved public transit. Improved public transit along tolled routes will likely not reduce congestion, but it will provide low-income individuals with an alternative to paying tolls.

Although unpopular with some motorists, since it will either make them change behavior or pay a fee for something they currently access for free, a comprehensive system of bridge and road tolls with rates based on congestion is the best way to solve our traffic problems. The revenues raised can be used to help maintain our roads, help fund investments in public transit, or help reduce property taxes.

Minister Lekstrom and the provincial government should move out of the way and allow Metro Vancouver to implement congestion-based road and bridge tolls to both raise revenue and solve the traffic congestion problem.

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