It’s known as "accurate transport pricing," and Canadian drivers are going to hate the concept.
The idea is to start charging drivers a fee for using roads in the core area of Canada’s larger cities during peak-traffic periods.
The initiative, which already is in place in several European cities and has been considered (but not implemented) by New York and San Francisco, was recommended for Canada this week by a western Canadian think-tank.
The Winnipeg-based Frontier Centre for Public Policy this week released a report, titled Winning the Battle with Traffic Congestion.
Noting that traffic congestion is costing the Canadian economy billions, the report asserts that building more road capacity is not the answer, often promoting more traffic.
"Accurate transport pricing aims to ensure that people face the true costs of their travel decisions."
Transport Canada, in 2006, estimated the cost of traffic congestion at between $2.3 billion and $3.7 billion annually.
In Vancouver, the tab totalled half a billion dollars annually, less than half Toronto’s costs.
Earlier this year, Toronto’s board of trade criticized the city for placing second to Los Angeles in traffic gridlock.
Transport Canada reported that all the congestion results not only in travel delays but also greater fuel consumption and additional greenhouse gas emissions.
The department did not mention accurate transport pricing as an option for addressing the problem. Rather, it mused about investments in public transit, parking restrictions, carpooling and teleworking.
The Frontier Centre report points out that accurate transport pricing is "essentially no different from standard business practices that see hotels and airlines, for example, charging higher rates in the peak season."
The report’s author, Auckland transportation engineer Stuart Donovan, urges Canada to follow the lead of London and Stockholm, both of which have embraced traffic congestion charges.
London first created a "congestion charge zone" back in 2003. Drivers are dinged $25 when they enter central London during daytime hours.
Donovan’s report details the Swedish experience. Stockholm first experimented with accurate transport pricing in 2006, after which it held a referendum on implementation: 53 per cent approved.
Fees were set at between $2 and $3 for commuters, whose licence plates were recorded by special cameras. Regular users were able to buy GPS transponders to arrange automatic payment.
Peak traffic volumes in Stockholm declined by about 25 per cent.
But what sells in Stockholm may not work in Canada, where taxpayers already feel fleeced, especially after last month’s HST introduction in Ontario and B.C.
If accurate transport pricing were to be considered, ways would have to be found for it to be made revenue-neutral.
Donovan’s report suggests that income, payroll, property or fuel taxes could be reduced as the new fees are imposed.
But the program’s high collection costs — averaging 28 per cent of congestion fees collected — surely would limit options for tax reductions.
And B.C. drivers probably wouldn’t like having their licence plates recorded by Big Brother cameras after a deeply unpopular photo radar program that ended in 2001.
Still, with Canada’s population growing and its cities adopting policies that promote greater urban density, congestion is going to become more of an issue.
That doesn’t mean, however, that intrusive programs like accurate transport pricing are necessarily the answer.
Vancouver lately has made significant progress with dedicated bike lanes in the downtown area and last August’s launch of the popular Canada Line.
Now, if only TransLink would encourage its brake-happy bus drivers to be more considerate of passengers. The system would surely attract more customers if it didn’t leave them black and blue.