There is only one toll bridge in Quebec, between Laval and Montreal.
Quebec – A toll bridge? A toll road? In Quebec, where the already heavily burdened taxpayer is expected to roll over freely, the idea is an aberration. There is only one toll bridge in Quebec, between Laval and Montreal, and the raising of the shields in the face of the tolls that the federal government wants to impose on the Champlain Bridge shows to what point it could be costly, politically, to make drivers pay. Yet, on the other side of the country, almost all the mayors of the Vancouver region have wound up agreeing to do exactly that …
At the beginning of the month, almost all the mayors of greater Vancouver (21 out of 22) approved a transportation plan for the next 30 years. Most of the proposed measures were quotas for general activities: better bus service, new metro and light rail lines, extended bike paths, etc. But surprisingly, these same mayors, these same officials who habitually evaded the presentation of new taxes like a pestilence, all at once backed a toll for a new bridge, as well as road pricing rules up for definition.
Only the mayor of Burnaby, a hillside Vancouver suburb, pit himself against the long-term “vision” of his colleagues. All the others approved it even though most of their cities and suburbs are milieus that have traditionally opposed toll roads and toll bridges.
At the moment, only two bridges in the region impose a toll as opposed to dozens that are free. And even still, one of the two, the Port Mann Bridge, which crosses the Fraser River in the Vancouver outskirts, saw its use diminish by 20 percent at the beginning of the year when the toll was doubled on Jan. 1, 2014, going from $1.50 to $3 per trip. In order to know what kind of fly could have bitten the officials, Le Soleil asked one of them four questions – Richard Steward, mayor of Coquitlam, a small town of 135,000 inhabitants whose western half is basically a suburb of Vancouver.
Q: Why did you, as officials, decide to propose tolls, despite the obvious political risks that this implies? Is traffic really that terrible in Vancouver?
A: It’s not that the traffic is heavy, but that at the moment, we have pay-for-use measures, but only on two bridges. Therefore, the inhabitants of certain cities pay significant amounts for the roads, while others pay nothing. We have to find other revenue sources for transportation in general … and the mayors think that property taxes, which are our only financing means, are not enough … Therefore, we are looking for other avenues that could, at the same time, send a message of cost to the public regarding the choices we are making.
Q: And it’s usually at this point that the suburbs dig their heels in, saying they are being taxed enough. The mayor of Burnaby has, by the way, rejected this shared plan. What was the reaction of the suburbs in your city?
A: Well, in the region, there are basically three cities, Vancouver, Burnaby and New Westminster, that already have excellent systems of shared transportation. Burnaby has more stops per inhabitant than any other city in the surrounding areas. Therefore, it’s easy when you are already well serviced to say that you do not want to pay to improve mass transit means.
In the same way, in Vancouver, they have a bus every 15 minutes – every four blocks of houses. In Coquitlam, we have lines that are spaced out every kilometer, and buses run at all hours. Therefore, our community is prepared to invest in itself. We have a SkyTrain that will become operational in 2016, after 25 years of waiting, but it could not really be useful if we do not have bus paths that connect to it because we cannot create enough parking spaces for everyone.
Q: Well, you must still have drivers in Coquitlam who do not look well upon any of this …
A: Yes, it’s true. Most of the people in the world drive to get to places. So, we have to find a balance between this reality, where the majority of drivers will stay with their vehicles, but there is also the need to improve shared transportation and roads. We have no other choice; our population is increasing. So, what we say to the public is the following: either we put hundreds of millions of dollars into mass transit, or otherwise we would have to put billions of dollars into enlarging roads and building highways the same way they have done in Los Angeles.
Q: What form could these tolls take?
A: Since we already have two toll bridges, around which there have been many discussions, instead of asking for $3 per trip on these two bridges, why not make people pay $1 per trip on all the bridges in the region and split the burden. But, without a doubt, this would create other problems. This would make people on the southern side pay more than others. In Burnaby, they don’t have to spend a cent in order to have mass transit. In Surrey, they need to extend the train line, and then they will be ready to pay for this, but it should be fair … It is a complex region: 1.5 million people, split among 22 cities.
Moreover, one of the bridges that goes from North to West Vancouver [the Lion Gate Bridge, which crosses the Burrard Bay over the Pacific] was built a long time ago by the Guinness family, who wanted to develop their land in West Vancouver, and they imposed a toll in order to earn back money. So, the people of Vancouver have already paid for their bridge, and if you asked them now to pay, even if just $1 per trip in order to pay for other people’s bridges, there would be an outcry. It’s really not that simple.
We are also looking at other options, like a carbon tax. This is one of the main suggestions: finding a mechanism that will pay for infrastructure while lowering our carbon footprint.
Is a carbon tax a fair way to pay for shared infrastructure?
Original article, originally published in French, here.
Credits: Data and images linked to sources.