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Report extols road-toll virtues for Canadian cities

“Congestion pricing” suggested to ease traffic congestion burden

Published: November 2, 2015, 3:30 PM
Updated: November 5, 2015, 4:31 PM

Traffic Congestion

A new report from Canada’s Ecofiscal Commission is again bringing up the subject of road tolls, except it doesn’t go so far as to call it that. It creates the more politically generic, and less emotionally incendiary, “congestion pricing.”

In its latest report, “We Can’t Get There from Here: Why Pricing Congestion is Critical to Beating It,” the group of policy-minded economists and academics from across the country (advised by notables such as Preston Manning, Paul Martin and Jean Charest, as well as business leaders from the oil, transportation and infrastructure industries) states that traffic congestion costs Canadians by slowing economic productivity, raising the price of consumer goods, creating pollution and health problems as a result of it, and lowering quality of life.

“We’ve got a very scarce commodity called road space during peak times, and it’s unpriced,” Chris Ragan, the McGill University economics professor who heads the think tank, told the Montreal Gazette. “We don’t price road access, and the cardinal rule in economics is: if you have an unpriced resource, it gets over-used.”

The report claims there are two main solutions to reducing traffic congestion: “(1) creating more transportation choices and (2) shifting transportation incentives” and says that Canadian cities focus on the first without addressing the second, adding that road tolls (congestion pricing) are the way to do just that.

“Attaching a fee to driving, for example in traffic hot spots at peak times, increases urban mobility by encouraging more informed transportation choices,” reads the report’s abstract. “Canada should begin exploring congestion pricing policies now with temporary and transparent urban pilot projects supported by all levels of government.”

The report makes four recommendations and keys in on four major Canadian cities. The recommendations are that (1) major Canadian cities implement congestion pricing in a municipal context (“well-designed pilot projects can demonstrate the concrete benefits of congestion pricing while providing important learning opportunities about different approaches”); (2) provincial governments should facilitate and encourage these special projects because not all municipalities have jurisdiction over road tolls; (3) the federal government should help fund these projects (“evaluation of these projects would lead to valuable lessons learned about congestion pricing policy design and implementation that could be scaled out to cities across the country”); and (4) all levels of government carefully evaluate the performance of pilot projects and communicate the results broadly for “smart congestion pricing policy development across the country.”

The report targets four major Canadian cities for the pilot projects – Calgary, Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver.

For Metro Vancouver (multiple hubs of activity constrained by the sea and mountains), the report recommends applying variable congestion pricing (road tolls targeted to peak traffic times) to the municipality’s water crossings to target the key driving arteries and reduce regional congestion.

Because Calgary is more spread out and characterized by long commutes, the report recommends high-occupancy lane tolls (HOT lanes), especially on new roads that will be equipped with high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) or car-pooling lanes. In other words, either car pool or pay to use those lanes to avoid the others that are congested.

For the Greater Toronto Area and Hamilton corridor (what the commission terms the GTHA), serviced primarily by the Queen Elizabeth Way (QEW) and several 400-series highways (some of which already have HOV lanes), the report recommends changing those lanes to HOT lanes. In other words, charge motorists a premium to use the HOV lanes if they don’t meet the exemptions (multiple occupants, green vehicles, taxis, buses, etc.).

Montreal seems to be the most practical in which to launch pilot projects because most of the congestion pricing needs are already met on roads into the downtown island. The report recommends harmonized pricing on all bridges leading into the city.

And although the report acknowledges that road tolls aren’t always well received by the driving public, it does conclude that keeping people informed is the best road to acceptance. To that end, the commission is planning a series of events to communicate the benefits of road tolls.

It starts at noon on November 2, 2015 with the How the World Beats Traffic Google Hangout, available at ecofiscal.ca/events/how-the-world-beats-traffic/.

A “Pricing Congestion in the GTHA” panel discussion and question-and-answer session moderated by Ragan will be held in downtown Toronto November 3. Details are available at ecofiscal.ca/events/pricing-congestion-gtha/.

On November 12, the commission will team with the Forum Urba 2015– UQAM on a roundtable (titled Reducing Congestion in Montreal Using Pricing) about how ecofiscal policies can help reduce congestion in the Montreal area.

“Communicating results in a clear, transparent, and timely way can help build public support for new and innovative approaches to beating traffic,” concludes the “We Can’t Get There from Here: Why Pricing Congestion is Critical to Beating It” abstract.