Opinion

COLUMN: How realistic is a $1 toll on all bridges?

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When the media start talking about bridges and roads and transit and referenda and all the stuff rolled into the Lower Mainland and B.C.’s plan to move people about, a common theme arises.

Go to any recent online story about these subjects, and inevitably someone will comment that the “solution” is to toll all of the bridges equally, and the number usually proffered is $1 per bridge.

This is suggested as being more “fair” than just putting these more expensive tolls ($3-$4) on the newer bridges.

That usually gets shouted down in the comments when someone else comes along and says any toll at all is a “cash grab” and there is no way a piece of infrastructure should be paid for by the people who use it, and the comment thread goes from there.

Rarely is there any deeper analysis of that first idea.

What happens if we toll all the major bridges at $1 a crossing? What problem does this “fair” solution solve?

First let’s define our terms.

When people talk about tolling “all the bridges,” they surely don’t mean the bridge on Gaglardi Way that spans the Brunette River or the King Edward Overpass, but they likely would include the two North Shore crossings and the major crossings of the Fraser (Golden Ears, Port Mann, Pattullo, Alex Fraser and Massey). Ambitious tollers might include the Pitt River and the Knight, and really, you couldn’t do the Knight without doing the Oak and Laing as well.

Seeing as how the False Creek bridges (Cambie, Granville, etc) belong to the City of Vancouver, and the Middle Arm bridges (Moray, No. 2 Road, Dinsmore, and Sea Island) to the City of Richmond, it is unlikely they could be included in any regional tolling scheme.

Traffic counts for most of those bridges are available from the Ministry of Transportation web site, and it took only a bit of digging to find the numbers for the rest. Using 2012 traffic numbers, the total daily vehicle count for the eight major bridges is 650,000.

So if you slapped a $1 toll on all eight (including the Pitt River), you are looking at $650,000 per day in revenue, 365 days a year. Add the jurisdictionally problematic North Arm bridges between Richmond and Vancouver and that number boosts to $876,000. Annually, this works out to just under $320 million per year.

Wow, that’s a lot of money.

Except two of those bridges already collect tolls ranging from $2.50 to $9, depending on the vehicle type. Although neither bridge is yet reaching its “revenue goal,” the amount of toll revenue promised the contractor at Port Mann is about $184 million, and for the Golden Ears, $38 million.

Assuming TransLink and the province could break these long-term contracts, we would need to remove this $222 million from our net increase in revenue, bringing it to less than $100 million.

To put that $100 million into perspective, TransLink collects $450 million in fare revenue every year from transit riders, which is about a third of its annual $1.4 billion operational budget. Tolling revenue at $1 per car only represents about 7 per cent of the TransLink operational budget: hardly enough to fund even the most modest growth of the transit system.

The fairness or palatability of $1 tolls on all bridges seems less relevant when you realize it will hardly make a dent in the money we need in this region to build a reliable transit system, never mind building more bridges and lanes of highways that will be required to support the region’s growth if we don’t build a more robust transit system.

This is why municipalities with region-wide bridge-tolling policies, like San Francisco or New York, are charging $5-$15 to use the bridges.

If we are going to talk about a “fair toll on all bridges,” it most certainly won’t be $1.

The numbers don’t work.

Patrick Johnstone is a New Westminster resident who blogs at nwimby.blogspot.ca.

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