Election Ideas: Toll Roads and Congestion Pricing

Most of the ideas generated by the candidates for mayor in Winnipeg’s upcoming election have been fairly predictable: of course we need more openness and transparency … yes we have a problem with pot holes … But now, finally, there is an issue we can sink our fangs into: MOBILITY CHARGES

It all started with a Free Press editorial, followed by a couple of tweets from Mayoral hopeful Brian Bowman, and now we have an issue that can potentially shake things up a bit. The editorial mused about a congestion tax, much like the one London England imposed, as a potential solution for our city’s infrastructure deficit.

Bowman, using his preferred method of communication, tweeted this out to his followers and said he was “looking at options”. Did the Free Press editorial board come up with this idea on their own, or did Bowman suggest with a wink that perhaps this was something they might like to write about, thus being able to float the idea without being too closely tied to it? I don’t know. It doesn’t really matter. Now that the idea has surfaced, we might as well have a look and see if it makes sense for Winnipeg.

First we need to distinguish between the two main types of mobility charges: toll roads and congestion pricing. They are similar concepts but quite different things. Could either of them work in Winnipeg, or are these half-baked ideas that will condemn a promising contender’s campaign to an early death?

A TOLL ROAD could be considered a premium service for which a fee is charged. It could be a freeway, a bridge or a tunnel, but the idea is that it is a time saving alternative to some other route, and it is this added convenience that creates the value for users. Often the toll is a key part of the funding formula when the infrastructure is first proposed. Sometimes, like with BC’s 120km/h Coquihalla Highway, the toll is removed once the infrastructure is paid for.

Now I ask you: what road or bridge in Winnipeg could be considered a premium service worth paying for? The only thing around here that could be considered a “premium” thoroughfare is the new Centreport Canada Way, and nobody drives down that ever, thus there is nobody to collect fees from. Centreport Canada Way is a $200 million enticement for businesses to locate to the land north of the airport, and charging a fee for an enticement is counterproductive.

New additions to our “ring road” like the Stirling Lyon Parkway or Chief Peguis Trail, and their proposed additions, are short and not enough of an added convenience to warrant a fee. They are not freeways to begin with, and a toll booth would create additional delays.  An automated system like the one Toronto’s 407 has is pricey. The cost would be disproportionate to the volume of traffic that would use one of these roads.

Most of our other major thoroughfares are riddled with controlled grade-level intersections where traffic grinds to a stop every 60 seconds. Bishop Grandin and Route 90 are so slow that it is often faster to travel straight through downtown to get to the other side of the city. Far from being a premium service, our ring roads are so bad that they actually add to congestion in downtown Winnipeg, which makes them unsuitable for a toll and leads us into the congestion tax …

A CONGESTION CHARGE or congestion pricing is a fee for driving within a certain area of a city. The most commonly cited example is London’s congestion charge — a £11.50 fee for driving in central London during working hours. It is widely considered a success, and a model for other cities.

Could Winnipeg implement a congestion charge? Sure. Does Winnipeg need a congestion charge? No. Should we implement one anyhow? Definitely not.

Congestion pricing is a solution to a problem that Winnipeg does not have. Our downtown is not congested, believe it or not. Our problem is not that there are too many people downtown, but that there are too few people downtown. The last thing we need is another deterrent to keep people away from our core area, and it would be foolish to implement such a charge without better mass transit options in place. We do not have any rapid transit that’s worth speaking of, and our regular transit service is stretched thin across our ever growing suburban landscape. If we had better alternatives for people trying to get downtown then perhaps a fee for drivers entering the area might be feasible, but until then it would only be a tax grab that scares people away.

One other idea that has come up is a congestion-type fee for the entire city. Visitors to the city contribute to the wear and tear on city’s infrastructure but pay no property tax. The idea here is to recover some of cost of using and abusing our infrastructure from those visitors. It’s an interesting idea, but I see it as being highly problematic. While daily commuters would be the primary target, all visitors would be hit with the charge. It would be expensive to implement and visitors are not just a burden but a benefit as well, as they support Winnipeg businesses when they visit. Also: it strikes me as being a little bit arrogant to charge somebody for the privilege of entering your city.

A better way to approach this concept might be to look at a specific problem and identify a solution for that problem. For example, new suburban developments create a burden on our tax base. Most also, conveniently, only have a couple of roads in or out. Why not impose a fee … let’s call it a SUSTAINABILITY CHARGE … for cars entering the suburb? I’m not saying it’s a fool proof solution, but it would be a way of representing the true cost of new growth, and introducing that cost into the housing market. There would also be little political blowback if the charge is only imposed on new developments were people do not yet live.

Anyhow … it’s just an idea. If you’re a candidate for mayor feel free to borrow it.

Elections should be about ideas. Some have been bandied about so far, but few that might be classified as original or visionary. It’s no Laser Pyramid, but the idea of a mobility fee is one of the more interesting ideas so far. It also has the potential to be extremely unpopular. Will Brian Bowman back off the idea or will he follow through and have a meaningful discussion about it? Will the idea fade off into oblivion or will other candidates evoke it in the hope of getting a leg up by labeling Bowman the road tax guy?

I’m not saying it’s a good fit for Winnipeg, but at least it’s something beyond the run of the mill stuff we’ve heard so far in this campaign, and that’s something we need more of in this election race.

feature image source: http://www.thestar.com

9 thoughts on “Election Ideas: Toll Roads and Congestion Pricing

  1. Taxpayers already contribute more than enough tax dollars.There are better ways for a new mayor and council to use their energy on the issue of infrastructure funding. They need to be on the same page. They need to be focused . They need to be militant about the issue.

    The “old” idea – get a bigger slice of the tax pie and use it wisely. – Provincial Conservatives need a big win in Winnipeg – now is a good time to extract something from them – Which candidate has the foresight to get them to cough it up ?

  2. Everyone seems to think we have a funding issue when it comes to transportation infrastructure, and while I agree we do, I do not believe that more funds will solve anything.

    We are a commuter city, plain and simple. We will not be able to out-spend our transportation needs as long as we continue on this trajectory. The questions facing us now shouldn’t be whether or not we need to increase funding for transportation, but whether or not to question and reform our current approach to transportation infrastructure.

    Adding more funding mechinisms to a transportation system that isn’t financially viable may get us a few more years of infrastructure funding that isn’t deficit driven, but it will just further distort our needs and bury us further and further financially — eventually into insolvency.

    Funding is not the issue, our approach to decision making is.

    • Good comment Steve. Thank you.

      It’s possible that properly used mobility pricing can do both — raise funds AND transform a transportation model. Again though, I’m not convinced it’s a good fit for Winnipeg. I’m speaking more as a hypothetical.

  3. Its not “more” funds are needed but more a “set amount of funds ” that is required. You need to address the funding issue so you can properly leverage monies in order to fulfill whatever decisions you make. Without knowing how much you have, you can’t possibly even start to plan properly.

    I think we could leverage 750 million per year into a 3 to 5 Billion dollar injection. Now, how you spend it is entirely open to discussion.

    ( Not sure what leverage ratio is used, but a multiple of 5 to 6 doesn’t seem out of line.)

    • When so many projects are cost-shared, it’s difficult to achieve that predictability that you want b/c it’s dependent on other levels of government. Do you think they should end cost sharing and just increase the steady state funding from the province? What about photo ops for the MLAs?

    • What is the point of further leveraging our infrastructure investments when they aren’t financially viable? You need some way to pay that money back, eventually. If investing that 3-5 Billion dollars in infrastructure for transportation doesn’t return the money necessary to pay it back, then you are just passing the buck further along to your children.

      I suppose this works if you don’t plan to have kids, but I do, and I don’t want them to pay for our stupid mistakes (like I am paying for the mistakes of my parents).

  4. Only thing that I can see is that we have an infrastructure problem. The amount of work done is not able to catch up to what needs to be done. How can that be fixed? The PC’s are funny in that they work to not spend money. That is one way to fix it, just let it be. The old spending money we don’t have is not really a mantra of anyone anymore either (although you think it stil is by the way some opposition members talk). With floods, long hard winters, the reality is that it is expensive to stay here. That is the reality. You want to hoard money like there is no harsh climate here and let the weather beat down the systems here, than just keep on thinking like a hoarder. Money has to be spent that is the reality. Now how the money gets spent is the thing. If we cut services, maybe there will be a catastrophey like in BC or in the U.S. southern coast (BP. Yeah it can’t happen here), but where to save? It’s a bugger for sure. Winnipeg is funny.

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