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‘Renaissance’ for tolls means drivers to shell out for Massey Bridge

The George Massey Tunnel is a four-lane tunnel that is burrowed under the south arm of the Fraser River estuary.

Laura Leyshon/The Globe and Mail

Drivers will likely pay for the Lower Mainland's new Massey Bridge through electronic tolls, international experts on the topic say.

The world is experiencing a "renaissance" in enthusiasm for tolling as governments struggle to find ways to cover costs for the expensive infrastructure that cars, trucks and buses need, the experts say.

"It's a significant facility, and this community's going to have to think long and hard about whether either they pay for it with tolls or pay for it with taxes," said Patrick Jones, the CEO of the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association, which is holding its annual convention in Vancouver this week, by chance just after Premier Christy Clark announced the new Fraser River crossing with few details on financing.

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Mr. Jones is one of the 650 people gathering on Monday and Tuesday – after a special tour on Sunday of a new bridge that demonstrates everything they are saying: the electronically tolled Port Mann.

The people at the conference are part of the growing global network of governments and companies in the pay-per-drive business. They come from regions as different as Europe, where 25 million people have electronic passes to use 73,000 kilometres of tolled highways, and China and India. Those countries are experiencing an astronomical rise in car ownership, and are turning to tolls to pay for the roads needed.

The message from this burgeoning industry is simple.

The odds are in favour of tolling, because surveys tell governments that people prefer tolls to taxes for transportation, industry leaders say. They are more confident the money they pay through tolls goes directly to something they can see for themselves is necessary.

Gas taxes, which paid for the free highways of the past century, are not enough to keep up with the price of the road network. Governments need their general revenue to cover the skyrocketing costs social programs. And collecting tolls, especially with today's new technology, is cheaper than anything else.

It is also much faster than it used to be.

Speed is a preoccupation of the industry, says the association's president, Robert Horr. (Mr. Horr also runs a tolled span familiar to eastern Canadians, the Thousand Islands Bridge, which connects northern New York with southeastern Ontario.)

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"The day of the toll booth is dead," he said. Instead, government and private agencies are moving to electronic tolling to prevent congestion and reduce annoyances for drivers – whom Mr. Horr calls "customers."

Those agencies are even looking at how to connect their systems so that drivers with a transponder (a device in their vehicle that the electronic toll reader can see) for one region can use it in another without having to sign up there.

This is becoming increasingly necessary as tolls are applied, not just to the traditional bottleneck points like bridges and tunnels, but to stretches of road where governments are creating fee-restricted express lanes.

Highway 407, a 108-kilometre express route running north of Toronto, opened in 1997, the first all-electronic tolled facility in the world. It is an early example of offering an alternative to the congested free highway to drivers who were willing to pay.

That kind of paid express service was just introduced to the Beltway road in Washington, D.C., and is under consideration in San Francisco.

Nothing like that is yet being pitched for the Lower Mainland. But it is likely just a matter of time, as the province and TransLink continue to talk about "road pricing."

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That phrase has been used with increasing frequency by Lower Mainland transportation planners and advocates in the past three years as they ponder how to create a new system of collecting money for transportation – including transit, in the case of the Lower Mainland – that people are willing to support.

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