There’s been an active comment section to this post on mobility pricing (some of it even on topic) – but this recent one by Joe Sulmona is worth reprinting as a separate post.  With his combination of technical  experience and political smarts, Joe effectively explains why the prospect of visible tolling on BC’s roads and bridges is a non-starter, now or anytime soon:

“Bold progressive mobility pricing type Leadership” simply does NOT apply to current B.C. situation, when one of the current Premier’s first acts was to gut the tolling policy that loudly sent message to key constituents that they were treated unfairly by previous governments.

From what I can see, the principle “vested interest” here in B.C. is to get power, and once in power, stay in power. This is a maxim applicable regardless of political stripe, i.e. survival remains paramount ( and I work all over the world, and only the names’ change – the desired political outcome never does, never has, and I expect in my lifetime will likely remain so).

And while I remain bound by Cabinet confidence, 25 years ago I sat beside Horgan when he was chief communications advisor to Premier Clarke. It would appear the hard political lessons about the political risks of tolling from back then were well learned, and nothing has changed as we fast forward to today’s context.

“Bold leadership” that is NOT coercive towards constituents can rightly only come out of deep “trust” by those affected by the decision. So how does Horgan do 180 and with a straight-face say to south and east Metro regional residents “trust” me when I go in the opposite direction. This kind of behavior cost Gordon Campbell his job, in part, over the perceived HST flip-flop, And politicians who fail to learn these kinds of lessons, regardless of the quarter they come from, don’t last long – Horgan is smart and has been through many wars so he will be highly cautious to repeat the strategic/tactical failures of others, including political opponents.

And please remember in my time in Victoria, I tried to get both the Lion’s Gate Bridge and the Island Highway tolled, but the political forces, NDP at the time, simply could NOT get over the public acceptance hurdles (and these proposals never really got a significant public airing, unlike the Vehicle Levy that cost George Puil his job too).

The possibility may exist for a City of Vancouver type trial, but reality is that the CoV population is only 13% of total for B.C. and falling percentage-wise as Fraser Valley and Okanagan are growing faster. The politics of what Victoria might approve for CoV is NOT ignored elsewhere, so Cabinet will be very cautious to the inadvertent signals this may send to flippable ridings, which become easy pickings for opposition when the party in power mis-steps. And when reaching into the pockets of taxpayers, policy is NEVER FAR from naked politics.

And remember, Horgan is a long-time communications expert so I don’t believe he will miss too many messaging fiascos before they get released. Therefore, in my view, he made the calculated decision that the political gains from gutting the tolling policy far-outweighed the negative policy implications…and this decision was proven right in the last poll.

IMHO, “Mobility Pricing” was set back big time by the current government, and they must own this failure. The first step will be to re-build trust that structural change necessary, which may very well take NEW leadership at the very top as the current messengers have planted their non-tolling flag in a way hard to come back from.

Elsewhere, tolling and mobility pricing continue to make technological improvements.  Here’s a current example from the EU: Greece begins pay-per-mile tolling to replace old ‘unfair’ toll charges

 

 

Comments

  1. Bold action is hard in a democracy. There’s no incentive. The question is, what would it take to convince voters to approve a “new” price on something they’re convinced they’ve always had for free? An offer to eliminate the existing gas tax in exchange? Maybe a more concerted effort to sell the benefits instead of solely focusing on the costs. Don’t know, but until the most entitled motorists outside the city of Vancouver think this is necessary, any government who takes action on it will soon be out of a job.

    1. Respectfully, I disagree with your rather centralist view that B.C. residents outside the privileged CoV are “most entitled”. The CoV will, within the next couple of decades, represent less than 10% of B.C.’s population, yet, already has vastly disproportionate the highest density of road/rail transit services, paid in large part, proportionately-speaking, by non-CoV residents. And ask the residents of Surrey what transit service they get by comparison. Btw, in the next few decades, at current growth rates, Surrey will be the biggest city in B.C…yes, indeed surpassing CoV. Given these political trajectories, so dropping Port Mann toll to Surrey was smart political move (both short & long-term) on the part of Horgan, wasn’t it! As such, if you wish to point fingers, maybe do so at those who decide upon the over-arching land-use policy directions which transportation systems simply serve…for your info, the next provincial election is only 3 years away.

      In regards to MP, the reality is any political promise to eliminate the existing (& slowly declining) gas tax in exchange for MP, as you suggest, runs hard into an awkward political truth about the same kind of “neutral” promise made by the B.C. Liberal government over the Carbon Tax. “Bold Leadership” may have been necessary to introduce the CT, but this leading policy initiative came with a heavy restriction, namely the promise of “revenue neutrality”. This commitment was vitally necessary to generate popular support when Premier Campbell introduced this measure in 2008. We should also NOT forget that the NDP, at the time, went all out with an “Axe The Tax” campaign, lead by the impeccable Carole James. The Canadian Policy Options Journal (Lessons From British Columbia’s Carbon Tax) has an excellent synthesis on what has happened with the B.C. Carbon Tax, although even during Liberal days the Fraser Institute has argued the CT had already morphed into a revenue source by 2013/2014. Accordingly, and in my view only, the traveling / taxpaying public just won’t believe i.e. “trust” that switching the gas tax to MP will be somehow “revenue neutral”.

      But a far bigger financial problem exists, so let’s be honest. First, let’s admit MP must be more than just a tool to stimulate behavioral change to address some of the negative aspects of the current free-for-all modes of use of the public rights-of-way. I would add though this socio-aspect of MP will only work in urban/semi-urban built environments that represents a tiny fraction of the huge geographic area we call home here in B.C.. Taxpayers in Fort St. John, Golden, and Port Hardy also pay gas taxes, and will have virtually NO alternative to their private conveyances for essential and not-so essential mobility needs. If MP is seen as punitive to these lifestyles, and the underlying regional/local economic structures that generate plenty of other taxes for the Provincial coffers, my bet is the Horgan government is already way ahead in understanding these political risks. Not so easy then to eliminate gas tax, and then replace it with ‘what’ outside of core areas?

      The current gas tax, in part, is used for urban/rural transportation infrastructure maintenance, although much more is needed to urgently address the old and falling apart roads and bridges, and yes, even expand the network to accommodate rapid population growth. In this regard, what is routinely forgotten is the GVRD (now Metro) Livable Regional Strategic Plan, approved some 25 years ago, with the blessing of the Province, encouraged development of much of the Fraser Valley, south to the border. And so we don’t pretend here, the NDP was then in power on February 10th, 1996, when then Premier Clark (with his Master’s in Regional Planning), and the Cabinet of the day, authorized the Minister of Municipal Affairs to grant the LRSP the designation of “Regional Growth Strategy” under provincial law. And who was Chief Communications Advisor to the Premier on that day – namely, John Horgan.

      The fact is the LRSP has generated gains for the region, as the core-periphery work model is starting to break down, with plenty of jobs moving out of the core and now contained much closer to these growing residential areas. For example, we can see what has happened through land-use leadership in Langley. Go take a look at the great planning work in the Willoughby area that has generated serious mid-level density investments near the Carvolth transit interchange, that includes a HOV bus-only ramp directly on to Hwy 1 that connects to Skytrain further west. Have you seen TransLink’s double-decker buses, well, this is one of the routes they use them on, which says a lot about the willingness of Fraser Valley residents to use transit alternatives when readily available. Regrettably, it is easy to “other” what ills our society, yet, the broad urban form that is emerging in the region is a result of long-standing acceptance by all political parties, which by definition means the Metro population at-large too.

      Plus, the Province of B.C. must find even more tax revenues to fund transit expansion to more than just the core of the Metro region, possibly as far as Abbotsford which definitely would help with providing alternatives to long-distance commuting and commensurate emissions. Metro Victoria could certainly use some kind of at-grade light rail in the next decade to the Western districts, while I could even see for the next generation a similar urban rail line in Kelowna, possibly using an existing under-utilized rail right-of-way, to connect the downtown to the increasing mid-level densities in the area.

      Thus, trying to sell MP as “revenue neutral” just won’t cut it, fiscally-speaking anyway. The funding challenges are significant, and once we get past the pandemic, hard debates are coming on funding sources that do NOT solely rely on just creating massive debt that our children and grand-children can worry about. Given today’s low interest environment, very tempting for governments to kick the “tax can” down the road, or transit-line if you prefer…bluntly speaking though, another way to put this kind of policy debate deferral is “Inter-generational theft”.

      ps…Greece’s tolling infrastructure article quite interesting, but as I work a lot in Europe, so reading behind the pay-as-you-go headline will tell a story of a nearly bankrupt Greek treasury, rescued by the EU in 2012, that has now forced this country to alter its fairly socialist attitudes and instead begrudgingly accept massive foreign investment in the form of private capital to build / run all kinds of infrastructure such as roads, and airports (that I’m involved with at the present time). I can’t see the current NDP wishing to invite a lot of off-book financing to make B.C. transportation projects go faster, that in the end still must be paid for by users / taxpayers.

      In sum, the policy choices about how we fund our transportation system, both urban and rural, with or without MP, will have serious repercussions for future generations.

      1. JS: “The CoV will, within the next couple of decades, represent less than 10% of B.C.’s population, yet, already has vastly disproportionate the highest density of road/rail transit services, paid in large part, proportionately-speaking, by non-CoV residents.”

        I’d like to see those numbers.

        Furthermore, it isn’t who “has” them but who uses them and gets most benefit from them.

  2. Well said.

    Good politics always trump bad policies. Always.

    It makes no sense not to toll highways, like they do in many European nations, although in no speed limit Germany only trucks are tolled on highways but cars are not as, just like here in BC, as it’s too tough politically, regardless of who is in power.

    A sizable Green party with clout may change that though, as we shall see in September when a Green-Black coalition may emerge in Germany as the Greens may surpass the traditionally second largest party, the SPD (like NDP here left of center) to make a coalition with the right of center CDU (like BC Liberals or federal conservatives here).

    But, with a first-past-the-post election system based on ridings the Green party will stay small here in BC although they might garner 15-20% of the vote, but only 2-3 seats. I was very surprised that the Greens agreed to the killing of the PM Bridge toll. Only if they are the true king makers, maybe in 4 years may that change. Maybe.

  3. Mobility pricing punishes those who can least afford it. The problem is too many (here and elsewhere) mix up their hate for cars with reducing emissions. Governments could reduce emissions faster by providing more electric vehicle charging infrastructure in both private and public spaces than by implementing “mobility pricing”.

    1. This isn’t really about reducing emissions. Though that is clearly a side benefit. Mass EV adoption is probably a faster way to reduced emissions in the short term but charging infrastructure alone isn’t going to be enough for that switch.

      In the longer term MP is about:
      Helping break the mindset that we are immobile without a car.
      Reducing, or at least better managing congestion.
      A funding source for alternatives to the car.
      Less land devoted to roads and parking can be used for higher purposes.
      Less carnage.
      Less noise.
      Less infrastructure and maintenance costs.
      Better health.

      The less wealthy are better served by more access to affordable housing close to where they work than being forced way out to distant suburbs where they need an expensive car they can’t afford or pathetic transit because it can never be good way way out there.

      1. In Canada, outside dense urban centers one is indeed “immobile without a car”. What works for Vancouver doesn’t even work for Surrey, Richmond or Fraser Valley, let alone other far out communities. Of course if you live at UBC, False Creek South, West-End or Yaletown a car is not at all required, unless of course you’d like to go to Whistler or V Island once in a while but that can be done with a car rental 3-4 times a year.

        As such, most voters are car users and John Horgan – being the smart realPolitician he is – realized that tolling the avg voter is not a good way to win votes !

        Thus, expect electricity prices to SOAR to capture ever higher EV use with a “transit surcharge per kwh” or some such term that is allegedly not a tax. That’ll nix the main advantages of EVs, lower op costs per km, by quite a bit but can be sold as “green” and “sustainable” and “for the planet” as opposed to a “tax” or “road pricing” !!

        1. I have seen credible analysis backed by sound math that has determined the switch to EVs will increase electricity demand by 30%. Since the switch started ten years ago, and it will be in the mid 2040’s at the earliest before the entire fleet is electric that’s 35 years to increase supply and distribution. Less than 1% per year.

          Oh the horror! How will we ever be able to do that without SOARING prices.

          Choosing a lifestyle where one is immobile without a car puts one at a big disadvantage. It’s unfortunate that those who grow up in such conditions don’t even recognize it. MP would help sway their choices. We all know Horgan is not going to do it.

          1. Should we not allow people those choices? No one is forced to live in Yaletown, or Abbotsford, or PEI or rural SK.

            Every choice has consequences, incl weather, clothing, house prices, schooling options and transportation options.

            By 2040s new cars will be mainly electric or electric-hybrid indeed, but that leaves a fleet of older cars. Where is the Site D plan ?

  4. Ultimately the thing that will limit car usage is congestion and the availability of other ways to get around. If we provide good, fast and convenient alternatives and just let the congestion happen instead of building new roads all the time then car usage will stop growing.

    1. Good luck funding transit then. Unless you actually expect riders to pay the actual cost of operating the system.

  5. So the parties that have implemented tolls in recent memory are the Socreds for the Coquihalla and the Liberals for the Port Mann Bridge and Golden Ears Bridge (though that’s a TransLink bridge) – user pay from the pro-business side of the spectrum.
    On the other side is the socialist side promoting universal access. Tolls are a barrier to access (as as mentioned by others, vaguely class-ist).

    1. Progressive centre-city professional elites vs the suburban working & middle class. That never ends well.

  6. Perhaps if we think differently……………….
    When we look at the lower mainland from above, in plan view we see a network of travel paths across a river delta bounded by mountains and the sea. This network is populated with buildings of all types, sizes and uses. Likewise, vehicles populate the landscape and concentrate in areas of high land use density. Some of these places of aggregation are connected by mass transit systems which allow them to grow evermore dense and higher into the sky. This is how we manage ourselves and our planet. But think, just for a moment, about the energy embodiment of the materials we most commonly use: concrete, steel, aluminum, glass, asphalt all mined from the earth, processed and formed by using at every step the combustion of fossil fuels. This is why the construction industry has a huge carbon footprint. This is modern global architecture and its’ dark contribution to the future. Meanwhile locally we have trees, millions of trees containing sequestered carbon and available for use in buildings up to five floors and sometimes much higher. A renewable living material and carbon positive.

    Returning to the issue of mobility efficiency, we have to ask ourselves if there is another way to build a city, a different vision that would bring our actions into better balance with nature, and even render the commuter issue mute. It would seem that there might be, we might start by decentralizing expansion, by changing building typologies and aggregating complimentary uses in new nodes of activity spread across the landscape.

    1. You’d first have to demonstrate that that wouldn’t use even more resources and energy. So why don’t you do some research on that and post it here. It’s easy to think we could all live more connected to nature if you ignore that you’d have to pave over more nature to do it. “Spread across the landscape” should be a clue. Who cares about the wildlife that would be pushed out into smaller and smaller habitats?

      It’s certainly possible to live far lighter on the planet than we do. Walking in walkable neighbourhoods is one way. It’s certainly possible to use lower impact materials. The architectural profession is embracing engineered mass timber construction – able to build many dozens of stories high. I guess they’d have lots and lots of wood coming on the market as people spread out across the landscape and mow down all those pesky forests that are in their way.

  7. Vancouver began as a settlement which grew around the site of a makeshift tavern on the western edges of Hastings Mill, July 1, 1867, owned by proprietor Gassy Jack. Now, we all should have known that a city founded in a tavern would be destined for the business of consumption. One hundred and fifty-four years later we appear to have reached a pinnacle in our economic pursuits. We have managed over the course of this time to pile concrete, steel and glass sky high on the downtown peninsula and in the process we have created gridlock in various places and a massive CO2 cloud emanating from our land use and from our road use.

    So we turn to solutions like road pricing. We bemoan the fact that they cannot be implemented politically. We fret over the rising number of electric vehicles, not because they are good for the environment, but because they don’t pay a gas tax. But not once do we seriously ask ourselves, “what the hell are we doing?” we just go for more of the same or so it seems.

    Can’t it be foreseen that if we pile everyone on the head of a pin we are all going to have problems getting to the tavern? We have gotten away with this behavior up until now, but now scientists have offered an alternate view of the city, a view of the carbon expense (climate crisis) caused by our efforts to become members of the global pantheon of gleaming modernist architecture and rapid transit systems. We do need a rethink if we expect our children to survive on the dregs of what we have brewed up.

    It seems that there is no future, at least as far as climate stability is concerned, in further expansion of the central city core, not here and not anywhere across the globe where thousands of cities have been built on this same development model.

    The car/ pickup truck things all across the globe: gas, diesel, electric will continue to dominate the transportation landscape and will do so well into the future because this invention is just too useful to swap for shared modes of travel. Future road funding? We will think of something that meets the moments as they arrive.

    1. How does the ideal utopian city housing now 2.5M soon 4M people look like? One tall 4000 storey highrise amid a lush forest? 6 story buildings with no cars – say like Paris or Barcelona that looked simialr to today before cars and trucks emerged ie more walkable? A mix of 1 to 60 story buildings, like today?

      Contrary to what you hear, climate doesn’t reverse the world’s mostly positive trends, it merely slightly slows progress (that is why climate is a problem).

      Technology and higher incomes make us far more resilient.

      Deleted as per editorial policy

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