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Vancouver-region mobility pricing group to consider bridge tolls

A West Vancouver’s Blue Bus crosses over the Lions Gate Bridge at 9:41 in the morning. (Jimmy Jeong For The Globe and Mail)

A commission appointed by Metro Vancouver mayors to look at mobility pricing in the region will be free to consider all options, including bridge tolls – even though the incoming NDP government campaigned on a promise to get rid of them during the recent provincial election campaign.

But tolls will be just one of many options under consideration, said Richard Walton, the mayor of the District of North Vancouver and co-chair of TransLink’s commission on mobility pricing.

Mobility pricing is a broad term that encompasses many different ways of charging drivers and riders for their use of a city’s transportation network.

Mr. Walton said he believes the political opposition to tolls may undergo a change.

“When you have an election, people say things to get elected,” said Mr. Walton. “I would be quite surprised if there wasn’t some shifting.”

Mr. Walton emphasized that one of the strongest goals for the commission is developing a system that doesn’t penalize people unequally.

“There is a sense that there has to be fairness and equity” in whatever is proposed, he said.

Bridge tolls became a major issue in the recent provincial election campaign, which returned a minority legislature that allowed the New Democrats and the Greens to team together to defeat the BC Liberals. The NDP’s campaign platform promised to end tolls on the Port Mann and Golden Ears bridges connecting Vancouver suburbs over the Fraser River.

Tolling is also a potential point of conflict between the NDP and the Green Party. Green Leader Andrew Weaver has previously said he’s in favour of bridge tolling and mobility pricing.

NDP Leader John Horgan is scheduled to be sworn in on July 18.

The TransLink terms of reference for its mobility pricing commission also spell out that a key goal is to generate new revenue to invest in improvements.

That means the status quo, or no new taxes, is not an option.

However, Mr. Walton believes the 12 new commissioners chosen – people whose backgrounds include trucking and delivery, Vancouver city politics, unions, student groups, business advocates and more – will do a responsible job of assessing the pros and cons of mobility pricing in general and the different mechanisms that can be used.

The chair and vice-chair, former deputy minister Allan Seckel and former NDP finance minister Joy MacPhail, were announced last month.

Several of this week’s appointees were strong advocates for the Yes side in the region’s 2015 plebiscite asking people if they were willing to pay an increased sales tax to fund transit improvements. That plebiscite was defeated by a large margin.

Former Liberal MLA Iain Black and other appointees like union representative Gavin McGarrigle; the CEO for Downtown Surrey’s business association, Elizabeth Model; and Bruce Rozenhart of Counterpoint Communications were all energetic campaigners for the Yes side, as were postsecondary student groups.

Jordan Bateman, who headed up the No TransLink Tax during the 2015 plebiscite, said he was disappointed in the continued push for more taxes to support transit and in the commission choices.

“Mobility pricing is just another euphemism for tax and violates the NDP and BC Liberals’ specific promises to end tolls,” said Mr. Bateman, whose group made the point throughout that municipalities could cover transit-improvement costs by running their cities more efficiently. “Considering that nearly 62 per cent of Lower Mainlanders voted down the last TransLink tax, it’s astonishing that the TransLink mayors couldn’t be bothered to find or put any of those No voters on this committee.”

But Mr. Walton said there is a real mix of opinions among the new commissioners that represents the mix in the region.

Mr. Walton said one of the first tasks for the commission will be to define what mobility pricing means.

Although other cities or regions are cited as models for mobility pricing, they all do it differently.

London has a designated border around its central city – an “area charge” – and drivers pay a charge if they cross it. Stockholm has something similar, but bills drivers higher amounts if they are crossing it at peak congestion times. Oregon has a tax that is similar to a fuel tax. And Singapore tracks driver movements and charges according to both the distance travelled and the time of day, in order to encourage people to shift their commute times.

The commissioners will be busy during the 10 months they’ve been given to come up with a report. Besides studying multiple mobility-pricing systems and making recommendations, they are also supposed to run an extensive public-consultation process.

TransLink has allocated $2.3-million to the process.