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

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.?


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.”


TransLink road-user pricing
TransLink chair Nancy Olewiler is looking to
ideas such as road-user pricing as a way out of
the funding deadlock gripping her agency.

Road-user pricing

Road-user pricing was in the news a lot two years ago, as TransLink, under then-CEO Tom Prendergast, considered different ways of funding an ambitious system expansion. After the BC Liberal government said no and Prendergast went back to New York, talk of road pricing faded from public view. But not from the backrooms of TransLink, where it is still very much on the table.

Mike Shiffer, the agency’s vice-president for planning and resident expert on road-user pricing, says TransLink is looking right now at a 30-year plan that expands the system, encourages commuters to think about environmentally friendly options, and meshes the transit system with land use. “Road pricing fits into all of those components. Does it mean road pricing is definitely coming? No, not necessarily,” he says in the cautious way of bureaucrats anxious to avoid attracting the attention of roving mobs of anti-tax activists. “But it means it’s part of the conversation.” 

The road-user pricing options that Shiffer, Olewiler and others are currently debating all come with unique advantages and disadvantages. Highway toll systems that eastern U.S. states, Ontario and many European countries use are probably out because they wouldn’t fit easily into Vancouver’s road system, which has very few stretches of controlled-access highways where electronic barriers or toll booths could be put. In the few places where they could be contemplated – on Highway 1, 81 or 99 – they’d be expensive to install and would likely drive some traffic onto non-tolled local roads. A congestion charge to enter downtown Vancouver – something like what’s in place in London and Stockholm and is being considered for San Francisco – is also not an option anyone is thinking about, since traffic to the central city has already been declining steadily for years. Hence the increasing focus on more sophisticated systems that allow authorities to charge drivers by mileage, by the time of day they drive, by the city zones they travel in, by the congestion points they cross, and various combinations therein. 

For more than a century, drivers and everyone else have tended to see roads as a kind of naturally occurring phenomenon. Like trees, growing out of the ground all on their own, needing nothing more than sunshine, dirt and rain. The reality is that even the simplest stretch of pavement costs a mind-boggling amount of cash. While bike-lane opponents in Vancouver have gone crazy over the $3.4-million price tag for the lane on Hornby Street, the reality is that money would pay for, at most, 600 metres of new road for a car or truck. The City of Vancouver’s head of engineering, Peter Judd, calculates the cost of a new road – the grading, the sub-base of gravel, the curbs and the 30 centimetres of asphalt – at $5 million to $8 million a kilometre. In Oregon, the estimates, based on current bids coming in, are also $5 million to $8 million a kilometre and up to $32 million a kilometre to build more complex pieces of pavement (on a slope, bike lanes and lights added, major freeway with on- and off-ramps). That doesn’t even begin to include the cost of minor or major repairs. 

But roads are only part of the transportation system. Every major city with any aspiration to thriving in the 21st century is also looking at massive expansions of transit, which also take enormous amounts of money. 

The models that governments put in place decades ago to pay for all that aren’t working anymore. Big whacking truckloads of money from the federal government’s pool of general revenue aren’t arriving as frequently as they used to, as that level of politicians has steadily cut budgets. Many American cities – Chicago is one example – rely on a sales tax to help pay for transit. With a recession, that source of money has shrunk. 

The TransLink budget

In the Lower Mainland, TransLink relies on property taxes for just under a third of its budget – $280 million to be precise. While that’s not as disconnected a tax as some might presume, politicians and planners know they can’t push the envelope too far. While it’s true that commuters and truckers aren’t the only people who reap the rewards of a good road/transit system – homes close to transportation nodes tend to be worth more than those far away; businesses close to transportation can attract more employees – there’s a limit to what can be piled on. And property-tax funding doesn’t do much to make drivers think about the transportation choices they’re making. 

Another big chunk of money for TransLink, around $324 million annually, comes from fuel taxes. And for those of you who drive, say, about 20,000 kilometres a year, your contribution to that, made through the 50 tanks of gas you buy over the 12 months, is substantial. For an average minivan (75 litres and 400 kilometres to the tank, at 15 cents a litre of fuel tax), you contribute $11.25 per fill-up, $562.50 for the year. Of course, if you insist on driving that Escalade and commuting from White Rock to North Vancouver, your contribution could easily be four times that much.


The congested Port Mann Bridge will soon be
replaced by a 10-lane toll bridge.

The problem with fuel tax

Some people would argue those fuel taxes are a kind of road-user fee already. The further you drive, the heavier your vehicle and the more gas it takes to move it down the road, the more you pay. Who needs anything else, really? Turns out – as happens frequently in the three-dimensional-chess world of transportation planning – that you do need something else. The problem with the fuel tax is that it only charges drivers for the distance travelled, Shiffer points out. It doesn’t factor in where people drive or when they drive – empty rural roads in the middle of the night or down choked Highway 1 from 8:15 to 8:57 every morning. It also doesn’t capture the weight differences between vehicles as some people might think. A 36,000-kilogram truck does twice the damage to a road as an 18,000-kilogram one. But it doesn’t burn twice as much fuel. 

There’s one more problem with a fuel tax, a problem that Oregon politicians started flagging more than a decade ago. The problem? “The way to get more revenue is to burn more fuel,” says Gregg Dal Ponte, administrator for ODOT’s motor carrier transportation division, as he recounts the history of the state’s unique experiments in transportation financing from a windowless meeting room at the department’s Salem offices. But burning more fuel is something that governments, environmentalists and the prices at the gas pump are telling people not to do. Those people are listening. They’re buying more fuel-efficient vehicles. And they’re buying hybrids and electric cars. Oregon is one of the top 10 states for green-car enthusiasts, with almost 46,000 hybrid- and electric-car drivers. At the moment, those drivers pay little or nothing to help maintain the road system. In Oregon, that’s critical, because fuel taxes pay 80 per cent of the cost of the entire road system.

So the state’s innovation-oriented transportation planners started experimenting. Five years ago, ODOT put out a call for volunteers in Portland willing to have a black box installed in their cars that would measure their mileage. Lee Younglove was one of 285 drivers who signed up. Younglove, a soft-spoken man with brown hair still in a Beatles cut, used to work in IT before he retired and is still fascinated with electronic information systems. He wanted to see how it would work. Plus, his wife Lana pointed out, he’d get $300 for participating.

For a year, from April 2006 to March 2007, Younglove gassed up at least twice a month at one of two special stations in east-side Portland, not too far from the leafy Laurelhurst neighbourhood where he lives. At the station, the black box he’d had installed in his Subaru would be “read” by special equipment in the pump. The reading would calculate how much he owed based on his mileage, zones he had driven in, and whether he had driven during rush hour. Drivers in a special “rush-hour” group were exempted from the state’s 91-cents-a-litre fuel tax and instead were charged according to their driving habits: 16 cents a kilometre for driving at peak periods in congestion zones and 0.69 cents a kilometre for driving at other times of the day. For Younglove, part of that group, it usually turned out to be a wash and it didn’t make him change his driving habits. But he thought it might have, if the charge had been high enough for driving at certain times of the day or places in the city.

Lions Gate Bridge hasn’t seen a toll booth since
they were removed in 1963.

“It’s got to be extremely painful before people change what they are doing,” says Younglove, reminiscing, in the comfortable living room of his modest bungalow, about the experiment four years after it ended. He nevertheless thought the idea was a good one that he could live with. But it turned out one of the major controversies of the program was the fear of people not part of the experiment who thought this was the beginning of some kind of Big Brother world, where the government would be able to track their every move. “I would try to tell them it was a one-way system, that the system couldn’t track a car, it was more the car would know where it was and could compute its mileage,” he recalls. But the fear persisted. 

Undaunted, ODOT launched the current experiment with truckers, which started 18 months ago. There weren’t as many privacy concerns because, contrary to the image most people have of cowboy truckers, truck drivers are already highly monitored and regulated. Most large companies have electronic devices in trucks where drivers are required to constantly enter information about where they are, what they’ve picked up, what they’ve dropped off, and where they’re headed. What also helped is that Oregon is the only state that charges trucks solely based on their weight and mileage in the state. (All but four states get their road-building money from the trucking industry exclusively through fuel taxes and licences, and that’s the case for B.C., too. Three states use a combination of fuel taxes and a weight/mileage charge.) The Android program was just a more efficient way to monitor that than having drivers and their employers fill out endless forms.

Haney Truck Line’s Lyman, like Younglove, volunteered for the program just over a year ago because he likes gadgets, figures that electronic monitoring for trucking is the way of the future, and wants to be ahead of the curve. A mild-mannered 40-year-old with a tattoo on one arm and a small diamond stud in one ear, Lyman doesn’t have a problem with his company and ODOT being able to track his location in five-minute intervals (something that was not a part of the pilot with passenger cars). “Maybe when I was 18 or 19. Not now,” he says with a smile. He figures the whole tracking thing is going to be a non-issue soon anyway, given the way things are going. The Ford Focus he just bought has a tracking system in it that allows the bank that gave him a car loan to see where it is at any time – a security device for the bank to protect it from borrowers who skip town with their cars. That “low-jack” 
system helped Lyman get the interest rate on his car loan lowered by three percentage points.

But, while drivers like Lyman and Younglove are phlegmatic about the idea of having a tracking device in their vehicles, there are still significant hurdles to making this a publicly accepted mass-market possibility. The technology is still part of the challenge, as researchers tinker with ways to make black boxes mesh better with existing vehicles, measure usage on a number of fronts (not just mileage, but time of day and congestion nodes passed), and transmit information without overwhelming local bandwidth. But the technology is a small problem compared to public resistance. 

“Just because ODOT is all excited, I’m not sure the citizens are,” says Mike Meredith, a former lobbyist for the Oregon trucking industry who is now the training manager at Haney Truck Line. “Even our drivers don’t like the idea of Big Brother.” Four years after the passenger-car experiment ended, the furthest that Oregon has gone was to pass legislation in mid-March of this year asking ODOT to look at mechanisms for getting electric cars and hybrids to pay some kind of mileage charge. Even in Stockholm, where citizens agreed through a 2006 referendum to have a congestion charge for the central city (now in effect), there was so much opposition to a mileage charge that politicians didn’t even try to bring that to a vote.


Lee Younglove took part in a one-year Oregon
experiment aimed at rewarding efficient drivers.

Road tolls in B.C.

Here in B.C., any attempt to add charges for drivers is treated like radioactive material, especially after TransLink’s spectacular failure to introduce a $75-per-car vehicle levy in 2000. Before putting in a toll on the Golden Ears Bridge, the province did meticulous research on whether the public would go for it. It appears specific tolls for specific new roads, bridges or tunnels are the kind of charge that’s most acceptable. B.C. Automobile Association spokesperson Trace Acres says its polls in recent years have shown that 65 per cent of members are willing to pay a toll if it’s to pay for the construction costs of a particular piece of infrastructure. But when it comes to charges aimed at reducing congestion or growth, opinion turns around. A 2010 BCAA member survey showed that 74 per cent were opposed to that idea, 60 per cent of them strongly. 

At the B.C. Trucking Association, president Paul Landry says people in his industry also support the idea of tolls if they’re for a specific new improvement. The Golden Ears Bridge costs the driver of a big rig $8.40 (more than triple what the car toll is). But it saves that driver 90 minutes of travel time, so it’s worth it. (Though Landry notes that it’s not a perfect system: Trucks registered outside B.C. don’t pay, because the electronic system only functions with B.C. licence plates.) But Landry, like Acres, sees less support for a road-user-pricing system. “The debate on road pricing assumes that users are the only ones to benefit,” says Landry. “They’re not. Whole communities benefit when transportation improves in their neighbourhoods. So I don’t thinking it’s just a matter of heaping levies on top of what we have today.” 

London, England’s congestion fee would not work
here because car trips to downtown Vancouver
are already declining.

It’s that kind of minefield-ridden terrain that the leaders at TransLink will have to navigate to move to any kind of road-user-pricing system, no matter how much it might make sense in the rational world. Economist Edward Glaeser, in his just-out book Triumph of the Cities, observes 
ruefully that, even though road-user 
pricing makes sense from an economic point of view, politicians have steadily balked at it because of their fears about public backlash.

Nancy Olewiler doesn’t expect that TransLink will introduce a black-box mileage system anytime soon, no matter how exciting that frontier looks. The cheapest way for the system to work is if cars are built with a tracking device already in, not if you have to pay $600 to install a black box. Such a device is not standard yet – and even if it were, it would take a long time before all drivers had a car like that.

“Even if we started in three years to phase this in, it would be 10 years before we really had it working,” she says. People in B.C., unlike easterners, hang on to their cars. When a new technology is introduced, it takes 14 years before every car on the road in B.C. has it.

Instead, Olewiler talks more – and she stressed that she is speaking as an academic considering possibilities more than a TransLink chair implementing policy, at this point – about having a system with options. “I think the vehicle levy is for the short term. It was ill-fated the first time, but we’re looking at a more sophisticated one that could give people a choice: a fixed rate, a variable rate or a mix.” Someone who lives in Surrey and commutes to North Vancouver for work might choose a fixed-rate charge for travel across several zones. Someone who uses his or her car more sporadically might choose to be billed on the number of kilometres driven each year. 

“If we find ways to match better to people’s lives, there may be more political buy-in,” says Olewiler. “But we haven’t had a really good discussion yet on these issues without getting polarized quickly.”

Olewiler is optimistic. But then, she hasn’t been through any of the previous TransLink head-on collisions with the public and province over vehicle levies, parking-stall taxes, transit expansions paid for through road pricing, or Evergreen Line financing, she admits. She’s waiting to see how it all works: “It’s one of those great opportunities when an academic gets to see the real world.”