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Experts suggest charging Metro Vancouver drivers to cross city boundaries Cross-border fees could pay for transit projects

By Kelly Sinoski, Vancouver Sun October 18, 2012

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Tolling all the region’s bridges might be a tough sell, but TransLink could consider charging drivers a “zonal” fee to cross municipal boundaries, a U.S. expert panel on transportation suggests.

The suggestion, offered to Metro Vancouver mayors Wednesday, was among several potential “road usage” fees — including charging drivers a few cents per kilometre — that could generate much-needed funds for transit in Metro Vancouver.

The panel, invited to speak with Metro Vancouver mayors who are leaning toward a form of road pricing to generate funds for transit projects across the region, maintains road pricing is seen as a viable and sustainable source of funding across the world, especially after declining revenues from fuel taxes, which are the main generator for transit funds.

“You’re shifting the burden and the tax process directly to the users,” said Ed Regan, a leader in tolling, pricing and transportation finance.

The debate comes ahead of a discussion by Metro mayors today on whether to allow TransLink to levy a two-year property tax increase, averaging about $23 per home, on Metro taxpayers.

The tax increase would generate $30 million annually for 2013 and 2014, and allow TransLink to go ahead with projects including a rapid bus along Highway 1 and the new Port Mann Bridge, and an express B-Line bus along Surrey’s King George Boulevard. But mayors are balking at the move, saying TransLink needs a more sustainable form of transit funding such as road pricing to pay for its projects.

Transportation expert Jack Opiola, who has worked on electronic tolling systems around the world, said Metro is similar to Stockholm because it has so many borders splitting up the region. But he said while Stockholm imposed congestion charging, Metro could follow the lead of Sienna, Italy, which instituted “zonal fees” that allow drivers to travel freely in their home communities, but pay to cross into neighbouring ones.

This means a Surrey driver, for instance, would be charged to go into New Westminster, just as drivers from North Vancouver would pay to go into downtown Vancouver.

“You could put that on bridges or zonal boundaries,” Opiola said. “But I don’t think you can put a toll on an existing bridge without doing major work to it.

“Any time you take a piece of infrastructure that’s been free and try to put a toll on it, you’ve got one hell of a fight from the public. They feel they’ve already paid for it. But if you’re going to improve it, they’ll go along with the idea.”

Regan agreed that taxing drivers for using the road makes more sense than taxing hairdressers, restaurants or homeowners to generate funds for transit. But in return, Metro — and TransLink — would have to offer a “value” to the public in exchange for the added cost, such as reducing taxes elsewhere.

This could possibly include fuel taxes, he said, since revenues are already on the decline and the tax is no longer viable as the primary source of funding for transit.

“It’s going to be a tough sell to say we’re going to keep taxing you on gas and charging you a toll,” Regan said.

In Dallas, Texas, he noted, plans are in the works to toll a portion of the freeway, but as part of the incentive, city officials are offering a guaranteed speed limit; if drivers fall below that limit, it will rebate the toll.

Regan noted the broader the policy, the more equitable it is for the region as a whole. He encouraged mayors to develop a vision for mobility to let the public know why they would be better off paying a fee for roads and bridges. Any new fee then should be considered a “substitute tax” by rolling back existing ones, while educating the public that the fee is a “consumption cost” similar to those imposed for water, sewer and utilities.

Opiola noted there’s a perception that driving should be free even though it costs money to maintain the roads and bridges. TransLink must define what those costs are so the public understands.

Mark Hallenbeck, of the Washington College of Engineering, agreed: “The problem is that comes from someone; it comes from the public and they’re not at all convinced they should be giving it to you.”

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