One of the main reasons public transit has difficulty competing with the private car is that the marginal cost of using a car is relatively low, since the cost of the roads the car requires is not fully paid for by gasoline taxes. In B.C.'s Lower Mainland alone the estimated road construction and maintenance subsidy is $560 million per year.

Thus, once a person has sunk a large amount of money into buying a car they are tempted to "get their money's worth" and use it for every trip. The same person may think twice about using their car, however, if the marginal cost of the trip were increased to reflect the true costs.

One possible way to do this is to increase gasoline taxes. This may prove to be exceedingly difficult in the Vancouver area due to its close proximity to the United States, which already has lower gasoline taxes. The other problem is that an increased gasoline tax does not provide a disincentive to drive during peak hours. Peak hour traffic is the sole justification for widening many roads, and some sort of "congestion pricing" would be able to reflect that fact by charging more for travel during peak hours than off-peak hours.

The variable toll road - California

A privately operated variable toll road exists in the state of California, on a 10 mile section of highway 91 south of Los Angeles. This large highway is so filled with traffic that "rush hour" stop and go driving can routinely add a half hour to travel times.

The company, California Private Transportation, guarantees that any commuter willing to pay the price will have a delay-free, 65 mile per hour (104 km/h) ride on the new road constructed (at a cost of $126 million) in the middle of the existing highway. The current one-way price varies from 25 cents in the middle of the night to $2.50 during the rush hour. Should congestion begin to occur on the toll road the price will be raised to the point where a sufficient number of motorists choose to use the free lanes.

The fare is collected electronically - there are no toll booths. Instead, a transponder mounted on the windshield is used to identify vehicles entering the highway. There is no need for the vehicles to slow down to be identified.

The transponder is "about the size of a deck of cards" and can be obtained by mail or at toll road offices by making a $40 deposit that will be credited toward a future bill. A bill is sent out whenever $30 in tolls has been accumulated.

Fines for entering the toll road without a transponder start at $100.

The toll ring - Trondheim, Norway

Trondheim is the third largest city in Norway, with a population of 140 000. It is situated approximately 400 km north of Oslo.

The city centre of Trondheim is approximately 1.5 x 1.5 kilometres, and each car in the city centre carries 2.6 people. Despite the high vehicle occupancy (almost double the average in Vancouver!), the city centre endured large traffic jams, with the corresponding noise and fumes and hostile environment for pedestrians, cyclists and public transport users.

Part of the reason for the traffic jams is that 50% of the traffic is through traffic. Planners suggested an improved road system outside the city centre. In 1987 the Trondheim city council decided to introduce a local tax in order to finance the expansion of the road system, since insufficient money was available in the national road budget.

The eventual decision was to implement a "toll ring" - 12 toll plazas encircling the city which collect tolls from motorists entering the city between 6:00 and 17:00 on regular working days. No tolls are charged when leaving the city.

Toll rings were established earlier in Oslo and Bergen, but the expenses of collecting toll charges were prohibitive. Trondheim's toll plazas include machines for accepting coin payment and payment using cards with a magnetic strip. However, there are only two attended toll plazas - the other ten are automated. This is Trondheim's claim to fame - the establishment of the world's first toll ring with automated toll collection, using "electronic tags" (transponders).

The use of the electronic tag is strongly encouraged: the tag is available for free, and there is a discount for using the tag. Currently 90% of vehicles entering the city during rush hour use the tag. Payment is arranged by making a deposit on account or by automatic bank account withdrawals. It is estimated that the annual management cost of the Trondheim toll ring would be two and a half to three times larger if all toll collection was done manually.

What is done with the money collected by the toll ring? It is being used to provide 60% of the funding for

  • the expansion of the main road network, in order to divert through traffic from the city centre and residential areas
  • the construction of separate lanes for buses in order to make public transport more attractive and reduce congestion, noise and pollution
  • the construction of separate pedestrian and bicycle lanes, starting with the approach roads to the city centre, eventually becoming a comprehensive network of pedestrian and cycle lanes

The brochure from the toll road company ends with the suggestion "One environmental measure which you can put into practice at once: TAKE THE BUS, THE TRAIN OR THE TRAM TO THE CITY CENTRE! Why wait for environmental measures to come?"

Is road pricing in British Columbia's future?

The Trondheim toll ring is made more feasible due to the ring not having to cover an entire "circle" - more than half of the "ring" is shoreline. The Greater Vancouver and Victoria areas are similarly constrained by geography, making a similar approach possible. For example, there are only 9 road bridges which separate the "inner municipalities" (Vancouver, Burnaby, New Westminster, Port Moody, Coquitlam and Port Coquitlam) from the surrounding area. It would seem quite feasible to implement automated tolls on those bridges as a first step to a more equitable road pricing scheme.

Thanks to Gordon Price for providing the sources for this article.

James Strickland
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