Honkin' Mad: Officials pitch driving charges

Will drivers accept charges? If so, what will road pricing look like and will it be fair?

To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, in this world (of Metro Vancouver) nothing can be said to be certain, except death and paying more to commute.

Last week the Mobility Pricing Independent Commission concluded that two approaches to road pricing “have the greatest potential for further study.” One, charging drivers at congestion points. Two, charging drivers based on the distance they drive, which includes higher dollar-per-kilometre charges at busy times of the day.

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These new fees are said to be a regional funding solution for future transportation infrastructure and transit needs.

It’s of little comfort to car commuters, such as west Richmond resident Leah Thom.

“We’re gouged enough though gas prices, carbon tax, insurance rates, taxes on purchased vehicles, tax on repairs and maintenance, property tax — if you are lucky to own some — and multiple transit fare hikes,” said Thom, a film industry worker who commutes to several, regional work locations monthly.

Mobility pricing schemes are intended to make people reconsider their commuting habits, as well as where they choose to live, according to urban planner Andy Yan, director of Simon Fraser University’s City Program.

Yan said the matter of fairness will need to be addressed.

“If all you can afford is to live so far from work and then you slap on a distance-based charge, you’re gonna have a fairness, or social justice problem,” argued Yan.

For that reason, some, such as Thom, question the very nature of mobility pricing and the user-pay model, which is a regressive tax — a concept that has become more prominent in B.C. with the reduction in income and corporate taxes, according to the Centre for Policy Alternatives.

“Even those who move out to the Fraser valley are finding that it’s not as affordable as it used to be. They have been pushed further out there to afford housing, yet they would be charged the most for per kilometre when commuting to Vancouver to make a living. That’s just not fair at all,” said Thom.

But that argument doesn’t wash entirely with Coun. Ken Johnston, owner of Novex delivery services, who says that while he has hesitations about distance-based charges, particularly for businesses, he believes, “those who use the services (roads) should pay for them.”

Likewise, Steve Seaborn, a Richmond-based home renovator, told the News he would have to pass on extra mobility charges to his clients, as a business expense.

Arthur Laing bridge traffic. It would seem bridge tolls would penalize Richmond drivers disproportionately, says Mayor Malcolm Brodie. Photo by City of Rain, SkyriseVancouver

What both Yan and Richmond politicians agree on, however, are the perils of congestion point charges.

“A (congestion) point model inherently, arguably, reknits traffic into a place where traffic may not be, in avoidance of a charge, so I think that type of system is fraught.”

Moreover, congestion point charges may impact Richmond commuters the greatest, given they are surrounded by bridges and a tunnel with bumper-to-bumper traffic, as noted by Mayor Malcolm Brodie.

Car commuter (Richmond to Kitsilano) Alex dela Cuesta thinks drivers would clog side streets.

“A user pay system didn't work with bridges, and people will look for alternatives if the same is done with commute [charges],” he said.

Yan said mobility pricing will inherently tie into housing costs and overall affordability.

The calculator must be pulled out, he said, when assessing whether it makes more sense to stay in Richmond, with its high housing costs, and have a short (cheaper) commute or move elsewhere in the region, with cheaper housing, but have a long (expensive) commute.

But for many existing residents, such as Thom and dela Cuesta, moving isn’t an option.

In Richmond, people may choose to live in a smaller condo near a Canada line station.

But “housing around transit is now at a premium,” said Yan.

Besides, putting housing where transit is one thing, but people need to be near jobs.

In Richmond there has been emphasis on building condos in the City Centre. But if the jobs aren’t there as well, commuters will face more road pricing or transit charges, even without crossing the Fraser River.

One of Richmond’s saving graces may be the high rate of its commuters who stay in the city for work.

“The interesting story for Richmond is the amount of people who live and work there as oppose to travel to other municipalities,” said Yan.

“It goes to say, you’re not necessarily a suburb of Vancouver,” he added.

All in all, 57 per cent of the workforce remains in Richmond. In fact, more people leave Vancouver to work in Richmond (23,905) than people leave Richmond to work in Vancouver (20,275).

By comparison, only 44 per cent of commuters across Metro Vancouver stay in their municipality to work.

“There is a variety of employment lands in the city that allow people to live and work in Richmond,” said Yan, pointing to east Richmond’s port lands, industrial areas in the north and the city’s largest job centre, Vancouver International Airport.

Nevertheless, to a certain extent Richmond is presently largely cordoned off between residential zones and job centres.

“You should try to locate jobs where you live, mixing it up where you can,” said Yan.

Of course exceptions must be made.

“Do really want to build high density around a composting facility? Probably not.”

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