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Why road tolls are beneficial to the economy

One day, perhaps not that long from now, people in Metro Vancouver will look back at the public grousing ignited by a couple of new bridge tolls in the region and realize how lucky they had it.

The world's transportation system is on the verge of another revolution – one that may be as profound, or more so, than the ones that preceded it. The steam engine gave us trains, which opened up countries. Electricity gave us trolleys that spurred urban expansion. And the internal combustion engine gave us the automobile and, ultimately, the roads that are now teeming with them.

Now, the world is being transformed by advancements in information technology. The innovations that are flowing from it will eventually change the way transportation systems around the globe are managed and financed. And one thing that many believe will come with those changes is road pricing.

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"I think it's inevitable," says Michael Poulton, a recently retired professor of planning at Dalhousie University and an expert on the subject. "The benefits of road pricing are compelling and now you have the technology to make it easier to administer."

Global Positioning Systems can pinpoint the location of a parked or moving vehicle at all times. Instant electronic debit charges can be made with a smartphone. These are just a couple of the more recent technological advancements that make both tracking a car's whereabouts and assessing costs much easier.

Which is the essence of road pricing; drivers are charged for the kilometres they travel along roads designated to be tolled. They can be charged extra for travelling along certain routes at times of the day when it is exceptionally congested.

Proponents of road pricing – which includes Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts – believe it is the fairest way to fund a regional transportation system. And she might think that. Those living south of the Fraser River, including residents of Surrey, are going to be hardest hit by the Port Mann tolls. Ms. Watts and others believe it would be fairer to share the pain of funding transportation infrastructure projects throughout the region.

Using gas taxes to fund transportation initiatives is a rapidly diminishing strategy, thanks to advancements in fuel efficiency technology. Ms. Watts says many people in B.C. are also avoiding gas taxes by going to the U.S. to fill up. What Metro Vancouver needs is a more sustainable funding policy that likely includes some form of road pricing.

"It's already happening elsewhere," she says. "So, when I look at the Sea to Sky highway and the billions it cost to upgrade it, it makes no sense that it isn't tolled. We need a more reliable way to fund our transportation system because what we have now isn't working."

Ms. Watts is right. But it's not just the B.C. government that is struggling to find the funds necessary to build bridges, upgrade highways and construct new public transit. Governments around the world are facing the same dilemma. Which is why a user-pay model is increasingly more appealing, despite the political risks associated with it.

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The public won't like it. But they won't like crumbling roadways either. Congestion will only get worse in our major cities unless something is done. Road pricing is believed to be one way of changing people's habits. Change – brought on by rising personal transportation expenses – that would force them to either take public transit, drive at times of the day that are less congested or share a ride with others during peak hours in order to cut costs.

Both Australia and Britain, where it's estimated that road congestion costs the economy £7-billion annually, are taking renewed looks at road pricing as part of broader transportation funding reform. They're not the only governments, however, coming to the realization that they can't rely on fuel taxes to fund transportation improvements into the future.

"New technologies can bring traffic under central direction and allow all urban roads and parking spaces to be priced appropriately," says Prof. Poulton. "That has revolutionary short-term and long-term knock-on effects. Short term it ends the era of free government-run roads paid for through the tax system … Once roads are brought into the pricing system, road users have strong incentives to economize on their use of roads."

For Prof. Poulton and others, the question isn't if this day will come, but rather when.

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