COLUMN: Who pays for what?

Mayor Dianne Watts wants the costs of transportation shared equally across the region.

The idea of road pricing was explored in some detail at a recent forum hosted by Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts, and is a subject worthy of far more attention.

The issue of who pays for what in the area of transportation has got far more attention in Surrey in the last couple of years, as work on the Port Mann Bridge project has proceeded. As the tolls come closer, more and more people question the wisdom of having those who cross the bridge pay hefty tolls, while all other drivers using the vastly-improved freeway do so for free – as long as they don’t cross the bridge.

When coupled with the Golden Ears Bridge, the only other toll bridge in the Lower Mainland, it seems that people living in Surrey and Langley are the primary targets of toll collectors.

The other area of discussion about who pays revolves around transit users. Most of them pay their fares, and they pay a hefty price to ride the system if they are regular users. While much attention has been focused on cheats and the lax system of fare enforcement, the fact remains that it costs $5 to ride from Surrey to Vancouver during the work day. While there are discounted rides available through passes and other programs, that’s a lot of money – more than it will cost to cross the Port Mann Bridge.

A fairer way to pay for use of the transportation system seems to be a logical step. Watts suggests that if there was road pricing on a per kilometre basis, the cost could be modest – but revenue could be very significant. She anticipates that such a system would allow for a reduction in gas taxes, and if drivers see that those who drive the most actually pay the most, many of then will likely support such a system.

Surrey staff will be looking more extensively into road pricing, but what those who attended the forum heard was very interesting. While many people are familiar with the congestion charge in London, there are other more widespread systems being proposed.

One that is close to home is a proposal for a road usage charge in Washington state, which would even affect those who nip across the border for gas. State officials suggest the scheme could bring in $34 billion in revenue over 20 years.

Watts said it is necessary to look at other systems of raising funds for TransLink and ensuring that the tax load is shared equally across the region.

As for transit fares, while road usage does not directly affect transit, road usage funds could be used to help subsidize transit. It is to drivers’ advantage to have more people use transit. It also needs to be affordable, particularly for those who travel longer distances. It seems a bit unfair that Surrey residents pay $5 to travel to Vancouver by SkyTrain, while those who travel within Vancouver pay half that amount. This is particularly true when considering that Surrey residents had poor local transit service, when compared to their Vancouver and Burnaby counterparts.

Much more remains to be done, but the discussion on road pricing and transit fares needs to continue.

Frank Bucholtz is the editor of The Langley Times. He writes weekly for The Leader.

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