Posted: Mar 3, 2009, 11:59 AM
Join Date: Feb 2008
Location: Bankview, Calgary
Variable pricing on bridge tolls may cut traffic — for awhile
By STEVE PROCTOR Business Editor
Tue. Mar 3 - 6:30 AM
When Florida real estate agent Miguel Acosta rolls across the Cape Coral Bridge he doesn’t really know what the trip to nearby Fort Myers is going to cost him.
The bridge operates on a "variable pricing" model where the toll changes depending on the time of day. At peak periods, the 25,000 commuters crossing the Caloosahatchee River may pay as much as $2. At times when traffic is light, the fee drops to $1.50.
Last week Steve Snider, the head of the Halifax Dartmouth Bridge Commission, used the Florida bridge as an example of the kind of tolling regime that might be considered for the two Halifax bridges to reduce rush-hour congestion.
He said the traffic status quo was unacceptable and the bridge commission will study a range of congestion-reducing measures, ranging from hiking the toll during peak periods, offering a discount to drivers during off hours or charging tolls in one direction only.
With 25 bridges, tunnels and sections of toll highways in the United States offering a combination of discounts and premiums, there is no shortage of models to study. Some are wildly successful, others less so.
Susan Hopwood, manager of the tolling program for the Cape Coral Bridge, said when the discount program began 10 years ago, there was a significant change in traffic patterns, with seniors in particular moving appointment times to take advantage of the toll savings.
In recent years, however, she said rush-hour traffic volumes have returned to pre-discount levels.
"With the number of layoffs and foreclosures we’ve seen in our area, no one with a job is asking their boss if they can change their hours. No one is going to ask if they can come in a little late."
Mr. Acosta said he initially tried to travel at non-peak hours but it quickly became inconvenient.
"I just go when I need to go now."
Variable pricing first emerged in Norway in the early 1990s. A study of its effectiveness showed that a 50 per cent increase in tolls reduced peak morning traffic by 43 per cent.
When variable tolling made its way to the U.S. in the mid-’90s, a study by Wilbur Smith Associates concluded peak-period pricing could be used to reduce congestion, but effectiveness was dependent on the mix of surcharges and discounts involved.
It concluded the public would eventually accept premium rates at times of high demand the same way it accepts them on services like electricity, telephones, holiday resorts and airfares.
The study’s conclusion aside, Toll Roads News, a specialty publication focusing on transportation tolling, documents considerable continued public and political resistance to hiking fees during peak traffic times.
In the January 2008 edition, an article details how officials with the Bay Bridge in California spent years crafting a proposal for congestion pricing only to see the effort abandoned when they couldn’t find a politician willing to propose it to the state legislature.
A similar situation occurred in New York recently, even though the cancellation cost the city more then $300 million in federal funding.
In Canada, the company operating Highway 407 north of Toronto has been experimenting with congestion pricing. It recently hiked fees on certain sections of the highway at peak times. The company argues the value of the time savings more than offsets the cost of the increase, but acknowledges it may be a several more months before it can tell if commuters agree.
Mr. Snider said one of the biggest challenges of introducing an effective system in Halifax would be coming up with a differential between peak and non-peak hours that would make people alter their driving habits.
"Would a quarter do it? No." he said in an interview. "We would have to figure out what might, and then go to the (Nova Scotia) Utility and Review Board and see if they would approve that kind of change."
Mr. Snider cautioned that any tolling change would only be part of a larger solution. Other issues that need to be addressed would have to include improved transit, more emphasis on car pooling, parking strategies and more options for walkers and cyclists