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Mobility Pricing. A New Type of Taxation

Recently in the National Post newspaper, Andrew Coyne began by calling the January 16th initial report of Metro Vancouver’s Mobility Pricing Independent Commission ‘good news.’  “The good news in Tuesday’s initial report,” he wrote, “is not just that it has put mobility pricing — road pricing, tolls, or as the commission calls it, decongestion charging — squarely on the province’s political agenda: it’s that the idea was not dismissed out of hand by political leaders.”

Mr. Coyne then continued by noting that this ‘non-dismissal’ also came from the premier, John Horgan, who, Mr. Coyne noted was “elected just last year in part on the strength of a major pledge to eliminate the existing tolls on two Vancouver- area bridges.”  Then he reported the Premier’s explanation:  “The tolls that we removed were in one part of the Lower Mainland,” the Premier told reporters this week, “and it was the fairness question we raised during the election campaign …. I want to see what [the Commission comes back with] … and how it fits in with our affordability plan for British Columbians.”

Affordability has emerged as the key issue, argues Mr. Coyne, because “in fact we already pay to use the roads in all sorts of ways” through taxes on gas, tires, auto insurance, cars, through congestion costs like air pollution, elongated travel times, and reduction in property values adjacent to roadways, and through parking meters whereby we pay when our cars are standing still.  But then, he also asks (and rightly and logically so), if we already pay to use the roads, why haven’t these prices and taxes-on-top combinations produced the result—decongestion—now being advanced as the rationale for more road use pricing?

The answer, of sorts, echoing the Commission’s answer is that pricing road usage is the only effective way to reduce usage simply because “in the absence of prices, demand [will always] overwhelm supply.” The methodology is also invoked (unclearly) as part of the problem for past ineffectiveness.

As for payment methodology, of the “two alternatives proposed by the commission, …— “congestion point” pricing, charged at particular locations throughout the city, versus pricing use of the road network generally, via GPS-based transponders installed in every car,”  Mr. Coyne prefers the latter, despite the inherent privacy concerns based on the government then having access to and knowledge of all drivers’ whereabouts.

The discussion continues:  “Do you use a cellphone?” He admits, though, that “This is admittedly groundbreaking stuff. No jurisdiction has yet adopted such a system, for the simple reason that the technology is only now becoming available.  But Washington and Oregon are testing prototypes, while Singapore will be first in the world to actually implement it, beginning in 2020.”

Responses by online commentators offer alternative perspectives: “… please forgive me for seeing this as another cash grab by a government strapped for money and prepared to tax the air we breathe if it means an extra buck in the coffers.”  Another adds, “new schemes need to be administered and that means more public servants and that is a very steep price to pay.”

Probably very few people have the time or inclination to pay attention to these developments.  They are, however, as they deal with basic transportation, a potential sea change in the way we run our provinces and our country.

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