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Tolling Points

New Interest in Tolling as UK Seeks New Revenue, Vancouver Studies Mobility Pricing

Bill Cramer

With internal combustion vehicle bans emerging as a go-to climate solution, and large urban areas scrambling to get a handle on gridlocked traffic, two different jurisdictions in the last week have identified tolling as a possible answer to their most pressing transportation problems.

In the United Kingdom, Chancellor of the Exchequer (the rough equivalent of the U.S. Treasury Secretary) Rishi Sunak is considering road pricing as an option “for dealing with a £40-billion black hole in the public finances, which would result from a proposed ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars within a decade,” The Guardian reports. Eight time zones away, councilors in Vancouver agreed to study mobility pricing for their city’s crowded and space-constrained urban core as one of the “game-changer” elements of the climate emergency plan they adopted November 18.

The UK isn’t the first to target internal combustion vehicle sales (and Quebec isn’t far behind), as lithium-ion battery costs plummet and EV ownership quickly approaches the break-even point with standard cars. And tolling agencies know that Vancouver is only the latest in a long line of communities to consider congestion pricing.

Put it all together, and the growing emphasis on climate policy and rapid decarbonization translates into a new suite of opportunities for tolling—just as President-Elect Joe Biden and Vice-President-Elect Kamala Harris lay plans for a “climate administration” after their inauguration January 20.

Message sent, message received?

Sunak’s embrace of road pricing came a couple of days before Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced an accelerated, 2030 target date to end new internal combustion vehicle sales. You would almost think someone had been paying attention to the simple, self-evident reminder we’ve been hearing for years from IBTTA Executive Director and CEO Patrick Jones:

“There are no free roads.”

Johnson’s announcement, part of a 10-point climate plan, was “designed to underscore the government’s commitment to a green economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic,” The Guardian writes. “However, the Treasury is understood to be concerned that a faster transition to net zero will require fundamental changes to the tax system to ensure it keeps pace with the economy of the future.”

Analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies shows that gas and sales taxes account for about 5% of UK government revenue, and the country is already facing its “biggest peacetime budget deficit on record,” the news story adds. So Sunak “is understood to be considering options for addressing this shortfall, with potential solutions including a new national system of road pricing—which would mean motorists paying directly to use Britain’s roads.”

Controlling access to downtown

The situation is different, but the outcome might be similar in Vancouver, where the defining reality of downtown mobility is a growing municipality largely hemmed in by the ocean on one side and the mountains on another. The relief valve is a river valley that has been growing and intensifying over the last 30 years, in a city that has long had its sights set on becoming the greenest on Earth. Now, Vancouver’s new emergency plan includes a commitment to study tolls as a way to control vehicle access to a perpetually crowded downtown core.

“City staff want to charge vehicles entering the region’s Metro Core—the geographical area that contains downtown Vancouver peninsula and Central Broadway—with a user fee to reduce carbon emissions, reduce traffic congestion, and improve the use of public space,” Daily Hive reported in late October, before the measure went to council. “Contemporary mobility pricing technologies that have evolved from stop-and-pay toll booths entail cameras that capture license plates and sensors that read the signal from a transponder device,” the publication helpfully adds.

City councilors are to consider a draft plan in 2022, and the All-Electronic system could be in place as early as 2025, Daily Hive said.

“The work plan will study a transport pricing strategy that focuses on the Metro Core,” the staff report stated. “This is the geographical area where the negative impacts of vehicular overuse disproportionally impact vulnerable street users the most.” It’s also the part of the city that “provides the greatest transit capacity, transit accessibility, and walk, bike, and roll travel opportunities in the region, which means there are often suitable alternatives to vehicular travel. Over two-thirds of all commuters already make use of these sustainable modes to access the area.”

The plan calls for the toll revenue to fund sustainable transport and climate emergency measures, which means that—at some point—Vancouver will need to hear Jones’ other dictum:

“Roads are never fully paid for.”

The common themes in this international tale are that communities still need to get their mobility needs met, even or especially in tough times. That anything we do has to be paid for, whether or not there are tax revenues to cover the costs. And that when practical people try to get things done, they turn to a practical funding and financing option that already serves tens of millions of users per day.

Newsletter publish date: 
Tuesday, November 24, 2020 - 08:00


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