Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

A price for good roads

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Winnipeg's mayoral candidates haven't exactly inspired a lot of confidence with their ideas on how to address the city's $7-billion infrastructure deficit. The debate so far has revolved around whether hot or cold asphalt is the preferred solution for potholes; one candidate says he'll squeeze an extra $10 million out of city budgets, while others are talking about raising a similar amount through tax increases.

These ideas are tired and weak. They won't make a difference. And despite bold promises and bombast, the city's roads and congestion will only continue to get worse.

In Vancouver, however, and other cities around the world, a bold new concept is taking hold that could reverse the downward slope of congestion and broken roads. Some critics have called it revolutionary for its potential to reverse a decades-long trend.

The concept is called mobility or road pricing, a system that manages demand by charging motorists for using the entire road network, or portions of it in periods of heavy use.

It's more than simple tolls for a new bridge or highway, which can be unfair because it only targets people who use that infrastructure.

A group of 21 mayors in metropolitan Vancouver -- Canada's most congested city -- recently endorsed the concept. More studies and public consultations are planned with the goal of introducing some version of the concept in five to eight years.

San Francisco will introduce mobility pricing next year, while cities such as Stockholm, London and Rome have used it for several years. Studies show it reduces congestion, while raising funds to pay for infrastructure.

There are several versions of road pricing systems operating in the world. Area schemes charge a fee for driving into or within a specified area; full network pricing charges for using roads over the entire transportation network, measured in terms of distance travelled. Other schemes may only charge for using certain roads during periods of peak demand,

San Francisco decided to move to a form of road pricing after realizing the road network could no longer be expanded to satisfy peak demand. The city decided it had to do better and change land-use patterns.

Stockholm charges motorists on weekdays when entering or exiting the central city with fees based on the time of day. After seven years, traffic was reduced by 22 per cent, greenhouse gas went down 14 per cent, transit ridership went up five per cent and $100 million in new revenue was raised.

The results were the same in London, where a flat daily fee of $13 is charged for using the roads in central London. Traffic was reduced by 30 per cent, while businesses within the zone grew twice as fast as those in comparable areas.

In San Francisco, polls show 58 per cent of the people were opposed to any type of road pricing, but the trend reversed following an extensive public consultation. It was enough to convince the municipal government to move ahead.

Winnipeg is not as large and congested as the world's biggest cities, but motorists already feel a squeeze, particularly on routes out of south Winnipeg. The city is growing, but the revenue base is not sufficient to keep pace with demands for new roads and repairs to existing infrastructure.

Rapid transit will help, if it is ever finished, but it is far from a complete answer to the twin problems of congestion and underfunding.

Winnipeg's mayoral candidates do not have to endorse mobility pricing today, but they should at least agree to investigate the opportunities, possibly in co-operation with the Transport Institute at the University of Manitoba.

Such a summit might suggest an innovative approach to Winnipeg's long-standing inertia on infrastructure. God knows, the current approach is merely getting us nowhere fast.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 17, 2014 A12

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