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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Could bridge tolls solve our transit woes?

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Lions Gate Bridge toll booths – Flickr photo by blizzy63.

Dianne Watts said it best when she asked whether we want to become like Los Angeles. With an estimated million more people moving into the region in the next thirty years, our already congested transport network risks grinding to a standstill if we fail to make new investments into our system. The notion of less traffic, less emissions, and better transit is something we can all get behind – the problem still remains though, how do we pay for it all?

While TransLink floats increased gas and property taxes, there’s a big pot of money the region continues to neglect: bridge tolls. The proposed 2 cent gas tax increase will raise $40 million, just over half the tab required to finance loans for the Evergreen Line. In comparison, based on preliminary calculations using public traffic statistics, if all the major crossings in the region included a $1 toll each way, we could raise an estimated $200 million annually.

The impetus to begin this dialogue goes beyond raising revenues though – it’s also about fairness. With the current piecemeal approach to tolling, South Fraser residents are going to be hit disproportionately when the Port Mann Bridge opens in 2012. If the Pattullo replacement ever gets off the ground, all three major bridges in the Surrey area will face tolls of $3 or more.

Continuing forward with such an unequal policy will brew increasing resentment from suburban areas that currently lack the transit alternatives more accessible North of the Fraser. Applying a cheaper toll on all major crossings in the region will be more equitable to commuters across Metro Vancouver.

The proposal is not without precedent. One need only look to the success of San Francisco’s tolling policy. That region implemented $1 tolls on all seven state-owned bridges back in 1988 to pay for administration and maintenance costs of the infrastructure. The tolls have since risen to $5, with $3 paying for critical seismic upgrades to all bridges, and another $1 increase approved by voters to pay for a package of transportation improvements including BART extensions, new express buses, highway upgrades, and pedestrian and cycling facilities.

Following San Francisco’s example would allow us to not only resolve our unfair tolling policy, but also raise the hundreds of millions necessary to invest in our transport system for tomorrow. With the new revenues, we could pay for a new Pattullo bridge, rapid transit expansions to UBC and Surrey, the third SeaBus, new B-Lines, an expanded West Coast Express, and more. In addition to raising funds for reinvestment, the tolls will help reduce traffic on bridges as commuters will think critically about their travel habits.

Implementing affordable, regional bridge tolls will enable Metro Vancouver to reduce congestion, lower emissions and pollution, build reasonable transit alternatives, and ultimately improve our quality of life. Now that’s a win-win for everyone.




  1. Unfortunately, the article does not address the basic unfairness of the large number of trips east west along the Burrard Peninsula that do not involve any bridge crossings. Why should people lucky enough to live in Vancouver who work in Burnaby or New Westminster escape while those moving north-south have to pay?

    Tolls alone will not do. If we are going to start charging for trip making then only road pricing – which varies by distance travelled and time of day – has the necessary coverage. 

  2. As politically unsavory as the idea of tolls on existing bridges is in Metro Vancouver, each of these structures is critical to the level of transportation we expect as a region, and should be funded in a manner that respects their net worth, and the cost of eventually replacing them – some sooner than others.

    Driving the Coquihalla earlier this year, it was evident that this road is not getting the level of maintenance funding that it would have enjoyed had the toll remained – after seeing the infrastructure woes that Quebec is facing, adequate funding of our regional infrastructure should be a priority, not just for the assumed growth of the region, but for the longevity of these assets.

    Thanks for putting some numbers to the thoughts of tolls.

  3. I agree with the idea of using road tolls to support transit improvements; the political issue, of course, is that we would have to at least pay lip service to the regions that will suffer disproportionately from tolling.  So, for example, we would have to commit relatively quickly to some form of rapid transit in places like Surrey after they are hit with tolls on the Port Mann Bridge, the Golden Ears bridge and eventually the Patullo and/or Alex Fraser.  Delta, which has always been very leery about how much it receives from the region, would have to be appeased with some kind of enhanced transit service after tolls are slapped on the George Massey Tunnel.  Ditto North and West Vancouver.

  4. Fail to understand why this type of revenue making policy to help correct the state of neglect on most bridges and auto-routes continues to be ignored by politicians at all levels of government across the country.