A way out of the morass: Mobility pricing needs a leader

Item date: 
August 6, 2014
Item context: 

UBC Professor and Transport Futures (TF) advisor Robin Lindsey concisely lays out all the issues associated with road tolls in this op-ed.  In the end, implementing good policy is about leadership -- an issue TF looked at in June 2010.  We'll revisit it again soon!


A Free Press editorial (A price for good roads, July 17) said Winnipeg suffers from traffic congestion, dilapidated roads and a large infrastructure deficit. Mobility pricing can help to overcome all these challenges.

Mobility pricing is a broad term that encompasses efficient and fair pricing of transportation generally, and road tolls in particular. It can be applied to both new and existing infrastructure, and it can be introduced on various scales. It can alleviate congestion and pollution, and it can provide new funds for roads and public transit.

Back in the 18th century, Adam Smith described the virtues of tolls for bridges and "high roads." Tolls have been advocated by several Nobel laureates, including the late Milton Friedman. Transportation engineers and other professionals are also increasingly supportive.

The case for tolls is particularly strong for traffic congestion that imposes economic costs not only from longer average travel times, but also unexpected delays and more accidents, fuel consumption, greenhouse gas emissions and pollution. The costs of congestion vary widely with location and time of day. Mobility pricing has the flexibility to target congestion because it can influence peoples' travel decisions: numbers of trips, transport mode, departure time, route, etc. In the longer run, it can also affect vehicle ownership and where people live and work.

Other tools to combat congestion are less flexible. Building new roads is expensive, and by making driving more attractive, it encourages more of it. Mobility pricing can alleviate this problem by regulating the amount of additional traffic so capacity expansion can actually be more valuable when roads are priced efficiently than when they remain toll-free.

Mobility pricing is also a good way to fund roads because it is consistent with the "user pay" principle that those who use a service should pay for it. Other revenue sources such as property taxes and sales taxes fail this test because they are only weakly correlated with usage.

Grants from senior levels of government are obviously attractive to cities, but grants are unfair to taxpayers living elsewhere who contribute even if they never use the infrastructure.

Fuel taxes are an indirect form of user charge, and they are ideal for pricing carbon-based emissions, but they are a blunt instrument for targeting congestion. Fuel-tax revenues are also declining as vehicles become more fuel-efficient, and electric and hybrid vehicles enter service.

Winnipeg could implement mobility pricing in several ways. At the smallest scale are high-occupancy toll lanes, which give drivers the option of paying a toll for a quicker and more reliable trip while adjacent lanes remain toll-free. A number of U.S. cities have HOT lanes.

Toll cordons and zonal charges have been introduced in London and several other European cities. These schemes have significant revenue potential, but they are not well-suited for Winnipeg or most other Canadian cities where congestion and infrastructure needs are widely dispersed.

Networks of toll roads or tolling points such as on the Perimeter Highway are a third possibility, as suggested by Steve Lafleur in Road tolls could fund improvements, June 2.

The most ambitious option is a comprehensive system of distance-based road-user charges. Eight European countries impose RUCs on heavy-goods vehicles, including Germany. Several U.S. states have conducted pilot projects for passenger vehicles. In 2015, Oregon will launch a project with 5,000 volunteers who will pay 1.5 cents per mile and receive a refund on the gasoline tax. A similar pilot could be introduced in Winnipeg, but an RUC scheme would be more economical if it were implemented on a provincial, national or even North American scale.

Canada currently has only 21 tolled facilities, most of which are bridges. However, plans for mobility pricing are in the works. HOT lanes have recently been proposed for Calgary. Metrolinx, the intermodal transport agency for Greater Toronto, has proposed a network of HOT lanes.

In Vancouver the Mayors' Council on Regional Transportation recently announced plans to introduce RUCs in the next five to eight years. This would generate far more revenue than the current policy of tolling only new bridges. It would also be more efficient because traffic diversion to untolled roads would not be a problem. And it would be more fair because all residents across the region, as well as visitors, would be treated equally.

Because of differences in topology, transit service, governance and so on, Winnipeg cannot simply copy existing or proposed schemes elsewhere. Field studies and consultations are needed to identify the best scheme for the city.

Various objections to tolling are often raised, but credible answers can be given. Privacy concerns have largely been addressed by anonymous electronic-tolling technology, and satellite-based systems can be designed to prevent tracking vehicle movements. Tolls are not "just another tax," but rather a user charge for a service provided when the toll is paid. Tolling is not inherently inequitable because wealthier people drive more, and the revenues can be used for local transportation.

Indeed, most analysts argue toll revenues should be dedicated to road maintenance and investment and to public transit. Expanding transit capacity and improving service quality makes transit more attractive as an alternative to driving. And with fewer cars on the road, buses can circulate more freely -- as happened in London after the Congestion Charge was introduced. Tolling sets off a "virtuous circle" as car traffic declines, transit ridership and service expand, car traffic drops further and so on.

The one remaining major barrier to mobility pricing is a lack of will. Political orientation need not be a factor. Ken Livingstone, a socialist mayor, introduced the Congestion Charge in London. The Swedish social democrat party spearheaded Stockholm's cordon toll. Courage and vision are required. Premier Duff Roblin had the vision to build the Red River Floodway.

Who will champion mobility pricing in Winnipeg?