Pay, Baby, Pay: Fuel Tax and Road Tolls in B.C.

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Image by: Ryan Heska

Our bridges are crumbling and our highways clogged. Governments can barely afford to fill the potholes let alone plan ahead for the infrastructure of tomorrow. Is it finally 
time to make B.C.’s road hogs pay?


Mike Lyman climbs into the cab of his nearly four-metre-high 2006 Volvo truck at 10 a.m. on a Tuesday in early March, settles into his seat, checks on all of his technology, and heads for the I-5 from the truck yard on the south bank of the Columbia River in northern Oregon.


Strapped to his CB receiver with an elastic band is a small Android phone plugged into the cigarette lighter where he has entered the weight category and axle count of his truck this morning – 46,620 kilograms and eight axles, with the trailer he’s hauling filled with Coca-Cola, on its way to Wilsonville, 80 
kilometres south of Portland.


As Lyman rumbles at a steady 90 km/h on the freeway, his boss and local transportation officials can track him through the regular five-minute pings from his Android, a trail of small blue bubbles marking his locations through the day on a computer-screen map. At the end of his 12-hour shift that started at 4 a.m., Lyman – who dropped the trailer of soda pop at Wilsonville’s Coca-Cola distribution plant, bobtailed his truck to Salem, popped over to Mount Angel to do inventory on trailers piled up there, and then picked up an empty trailer at Wilsonville and pulled it back to Portland – has logged 251 kilometres, according to the Android. The bill from the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) to his bosses at Yakima, Washington-based Haney Truck Line Inc. for the wear and tear his truck put on the roads that day: $18.80. 


It doesn’t sound like much and it isn’t, but multiply that by 500 trucks, some travelling as much as 1,000 kilometres in a day, and Haney Truck Line ends up sending $160,000 a year to the state as its contribution to building and maintaining the pavement throughout Oregon.


Mike Lyman and Haney Truck Line are part of an experiment, one of dozens going on around the world, in what’s called road-user pricing. The methods vary – tolls, congestion charges to enter the central city at any time, cordon lines to enter the central city during business hours, a charge to use one special lane of the highway or, as in Oregon’s case, mileage and weight charges monitored through new technology – but the goal is the same everywhere: to find a cure for the chronic diseases plaguing modern-day transportation systems. Those chronic diseases include the increasing lack of monetary oxygen for roads and transit, and blocked arteries caused by traffic congestion. The solution to both: Make the drivers pay, somehow. Make them pay in proportion to how much road damage they do. Make them pay to make them change the way they use the roads. Make them pay to encourage them to use transit. And, for those who can’t (truckers) or won’t get out of their vehicles (balky passenger-car drivers), make them help to fund transit for others. 


In B.C., the people planning the transportation future are looking at all these experiments, calculating which of them might be the right fit to change the deal they’ve had with drivers locally for the past 100 years. The province took its own cautious leap into the future with the Golden Ears Bridge, which introduced – after much study about public acceptability – the first electronic-toll system in western Canada; it will be joined soon by the new tolled Port Mann bridge. And the idea of a high-occupancy toll lane, where you pay to drive in an HOV lane (as San Diego, Minneapolis and several other cities have tried), was mentioned as a possibility for the new Gateway roads in a confidential report to the province back in 2005, though there’s been no visible sign of take-up on that. But it’s the non-toll kinds of road-user-pricing experiments, such as Oregon’s 2007 passenger-car test using a GPS device, and that state’s ongoing truck test, that are particularly tantalizing to those at TransLink. 


The Lower Mainland’s transportation authority has struggled in every one of its 11 years of existence to find ways to pay for a transit network that covers twice the area that Toronto’s transit commission does, with only 40 per cent of its 2.5 million daily riders. TransLink, with a billion-dollar budget, is deadlocked at the moment over how to come up with billions more for transit improvements that its member municipal kingdoms are screaming for: the Evergreen Line in Coquitlam and Port Moody, a rapid-transit line and better bus service south of the Fraser, the Millennium Line extension along Broadway, and much more. Stuck with funding everything through fares, property taxes and fuel taxes, the agency has reached the limit of what its mayors think the public can take on those fronts. 


“We do have to look at the gamut,” says Nancy Olewiler, the formidably well-qualified and analytical SFU public-policy professor who was appointed TransLink chair last year. “If we don’t do something different, we will be like other metropolitan areas that are deadlocked on financing and quality-of-life problems.”


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