Metro Vancouver risks losing billions in transit funding if no decision on tolling

Bridge tolling could provide the money needed to cover transit costs for Metro Vancouver municipalities. But tolls are both expensive and politically challenging.

B.C. government is struggling with the politics of tolling all bridges

Should all bridges and crossings in Metro Vancouver be tolled? Delta Mayor Lois Jackson thinks so. (CBC)

It has become Metro Vancouver's seemingly unsolvable problem.

How will the municipalities pay for their share of the two major transit projects they most desire: the Broadway subway line in Vancouver and light rail transit in Surrey.

Here's a possible, but politically unpopular solution: mobility pricing that includes tolling every crossing in the region.

Delta Mayor Lois Jackson was the first one to put a price tag on how Metro Vancouver tolling could work. Her idea is to charge everyone a dollar every time they cross a bridge in the region, exempting the three downtown Vancouver bridges exempt.

"I think people will see this reasonably. It is user pay. It does put together a bank of money that can put together the things we want to realize... to break up this congestion problem throughout the Lower Mainland," Jackson says.

Leaving money on the table

In last week's budget, the federal Liberals promised to fund 50 per cent of major transit projects with allocations starting in the 2020-21 fiscal year.

That's a bump up from what the federal government has historically covered and has alleviated some of the pressure on the municipal governments.

The Liberal government introduced its first budget last week. It included $3.4 billion in funding for public transit projects, money that will be distributed based on ridership numbers for different cities. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Based on current conservative estimates, this would mean the federal government is willing to spend $950 million on the Broadway subway line and $1.3 billion on the Surrey LRT. The province has committed to covering its third for each project, a conservative $1.5 billion in total.

Then that leaves the municipalities. Cities have always had a much bigger challenge than other forms of government in raising revenues. So if the Metro Vancouver municipalities cannot figure out how to gather the remaining 17 per cent — about $765 million — then that contribution from the federal government just disappears. 

"We would be leaving money on the table. I suggest when you are talking in the hundreds of millions of dollars that is going to be way more politically unpopular," says Gordon Price, the director of Simon Fraser University's City Program.

"In other words, missing the chance of getting federal money that would be going somewhere else. Imagine Toronto getting our money while we struggle again to come to a resolution between the two levels of government."

Not adding up

The problem with using Jackson's idea as the solution to the funding problems is that with $1 tolls, the math just doesn't add up.

Data from 2011 shows there were about 380 million bridge crossings in Metro Vancouver that year. So $1 per crossing generates $380 million, but that doesn't factor in the money — around $52 million a year — that is already collected at the tolled Port Mann and Golden Ears bridges. That money is earmarked to pay for the construction bills that haven't yet been covered.

"If you put tolls on the Lions Gate bridge or the Second Narrows, I think you know people on the North Shore are going to have something to say about that," says Gordon Price. (Darryl Dyck/CP)

The only way it would work financially is if tolls were set at around $2.50 for each crossing.

On top of that, transitioning to a regional tolling system may not be feasible fast enough.

The federal government will only fund major projects once there is a formula on how the balance will be paid, so to meet the 2020 deadline the Trudeau Liberals have set out, it seems a decision on how to fund the Metro Vancouver portion will have to come within the next few years.

Setting up tolls on every bridge would carry a stiff price tag for the technology needed to track cars and ensuring those drivers pay. But Price says there is an even heftier political cost.

"If you put tolls on the Lions Gate bridge or the Second Narrows, I think you know people on the North Shore are going to have something to say about that," says Price.

'Controversial issue'

That is where the province is supposed to come in but, in Price's words, they have "dug their heels in."

At this point the provincial government is unwilling to even discuss the idea of tolling until the construction of the Massey Tunnel replacement and the Pattullo Bridge is closer, but the construction can't begin until the funding is secured, creating a bizarre catch-22 situation.

"It's a controversial issue," says B.C. Premier Christy Clark. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

"It's a controversial issue. I don't think we have enough information at this point to say yes or no," says B.C. Premier Christy Clark.

"Until we know exactly how much public money will go into Massey, it is hard to figure out what the toll rate would be. It's complicated and we are working on it."

'Hitting people twice'

Tolling also seems to be unpopular at this point with drivers, according to Jordan Bateman, the Canadian Taxpayers Federation spokesman in B.C.

He was also the face of the 'No' campaign in the transit referendum, and says it's especially unfair considering there already is a gas tax that goes in part to transit.

"We already have a form of mobility pricing. We pay it every time we go to the gas pump. Right now it's 49 cents a litre. 22 cents of that tax goes to Translink when you include federal money," says Bateman. "You are hitting people twice for the same mobility. It just doesn't make sense for me."


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