British Columbia

Can road pricing in Metro Vancouver succeed where transit referendum failed?

When you launch a project about congestion and transportation funding that's called "It's Time", it inevitably begs the question, "well, time for what?"

Asking people to pay a new fee will be contentious — once that conversation actually starts

Motorists merge from four lanes into one as they enter the Lions Gate Bridge to drive into Vancouver. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

If you live in Metro Vancouver and think about transportation, you're going to be hearing a lot about the Mobility Pricing Independent Commission in the next few months. 

Created this summer by TransLink, the commission is responsible for coming up with recommendations on how to implement mobility pricing.

TransLink describes this as "the suite of fees and charges for using everyday transportation services. These include things like transit fares, bridge tolls, road usage charges."

In short, paying money to drive in areas currently packed with cars. 

And it was right in the commission's first press release: their "work will focus on decongestion charging, which is one form of mobility pricing, and refers to a range of fees that can be charged for everyday use of the transportation system, such as distance or time-based fees, congestion fees or tolls." 

The last time there was a big debate in Metro Vancouver on the future of funding transportation — the 2015 transit referendum, where voters rejected a 0.5 per increase on the sales tax — it went very badly for those pushing for change. 

However, at the commission's first media event on Wednesday, there wasn't much on the changes that could happen this time around.

"We want to have an open mind at the start," said Allan Seckel, chair of the commission, explaining why there were no firm proposals on the table at this point. 

"We want to hear from the public on these issues," Seckel said at another point. "We're taking the first step."

The commission also had a website that until Wednesday was called mobilitypricing.ca. 

Now, that page redirects to itstimemv.ca —  a page where the word "congestion" appears four times, and "mobility pricing" just once, in reference to the committee's name. 

A plane hired by the 'No' side in the 2015 transit referendum flew over Vancouver with a banner saying "Vote no to TransLink tax."

Easing into the conversation

But there may be a good reason why the commission has decided to avoid talking about costs and proposals at this early stage.      

Members of the commission aren't politicians, but they're keenly aware of how the 2015 transit referendum failed. After months of mostly private discussions, local politicians presented a plan where everyone in Metro Vancouver would pay more  — through the tax hike — for public transit they didn't necessarily use.

Then they tried to sell it to a public who wondered what was in it for them.

This process is about an arms-length commission, not elected politicians. It's using language of reducing congestion, not spending money on new megaprojects.    

In short, the opposite of the transit referendum. By design. 

"That's the reason we're launching it on this process, of seeking public input now," said Seckel.

"Rather than coming to them with a conclusion and saying what do you think, we're seeking the views of the public: what are their concerns? What are their interests? Where is congestion a problem?"

Another way this isn't like the ill-fated transit referendum: there may not be a referendum. TransLink is keen to see mobility pricing in play, the Mayors' Council has endorsed the concept, and the provincial government has said it wants to work with the council on what it comes up with.

An entrance into London's congestion charge zone for the centre of their city. Commuters pay for £11.50 for daily access to the zone. (Alastair Grant/Associated Press)

More fees, or revenue neutral?

So is road pricing a fait accompli? 

The provincial government could reject the commission's findings, or refer it to a referendum, if there's anger over the final proposals. 

The big question will likely be whether new mobility fees create a de facto new tax, or whether they'll be balanced by reductions in fuel taxes and transit fares. 

"It could just be a redistribution of how we pay today in order to affect congestion. We're open to that possibility. We're not necessarily looking at this as an addition," said Seckel.

His comments came minutes after Joy MacPhail, vice-chair of the commission, spoke glowingly of the system in London, where commuters pay around $20 Cdn every day they travel into the centre of the U.K. metropolis. 

"Much of the collected revenue, in fact all of it, was put into public transit. People had options ... they could get around with different methods that do work extremely well. That's a great model," MacPhail said.  

So, there are decisions to be made. But Seckel says politicians — not the commission — will decide if a new mobility pricing system will cost more money for people in Metro Vancouver.

And the time for that?

Check back in a few months.  

About the Author

Justin McElroy

@j_mcelroy

Justin is the Municipal Affairs Reporter for CBC Vancouver, covering local political stories throughout British Columbia.

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