Having one’s cake and eating it too would be just wonderful. It would be great to have a new bridge without paying for it, and unlimited bridge crossings without congestion; to drive a vehicle without emitting greenhouse gases, and drive many kilometres to work without causing urban sprawl.
Alas, everything has a price. Yet the South Shore mayors, Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre, some federal party leaders, virtually everybody in the National Assembly and many potential users are all against Champlain tolls. Can they all be wrong? Yes they can.
The latest moan against tolls is that drivers will detour to the Mercier, Jacques-Cartier and Victoria bridges in response to tolls on the Champlain. Of course, this may happen, unless we plan for it. However, only a small degree of imagination is required to reduce such secondary congestion.
First, let’s be clear about the scale of the tariff. The latest estimates suggest that a toll of about $3, with variations to account for peak and off-peak traffic and commercial vehicles, will cover costs. This seems right: A $4-billion investment that requires a 5 per cent annual return should generate $200 million per year. With about 50 million crossings a year, and higher charges for commercial vehicles, we arrive at the required annual revenue. Such fees are modest compared to many urban access charges. Entering London costs almost $15 per day. Navigating around Toronto costs almost $20 on Highway 407.
Second, there is something valuable to be learned from the Highway 25 bridge off the island of Montreal, also a public-private partnership. Users currently pay a little less than $3, but are almost uniform in expressing satisfaction with the smooth access and time savings that it provides. Revenues have been buoyant and congestion is low. Why would the Champlain experience be any different? Why are the public voices of indignation not also crying out against a system that we already have in place in Montreal?
But let’s return to the question of diverted traffic. The most surprising aspect of the recent reports is how few vehicles they predict will be diverted. Nevertheless, one solution would be to levy a small charge on all bridges, a toll that would vary by time of day to reduce congestion and that would encourage some users to switch to public transit. The off-peak toll could even be set at zero. The toll on the secondary bridges would also help keep the Champlain toll at the low end of the estimates.
And smart technology will help us. Here’s how it could work.
First, our federal, provincial and municipal jurisdictions agree to co-operate in achieving less congestion, reduced greenhouse gas emissions (attributable to an excess of slow-moving vehicles), and higher rates of public-transit use.
Then the smart technology kicks in. A single transponder would enable a vehicle to cross any tolled bridge in the metropolitan area — whether the revenue goes to the private sector, or to the provincial or federal government. The Laval connection on Highway 25, the Champlain, and any other tolled structure would require just a single apparatus.
In short order, apps would be developed and radio stations would dedicate themselves to providing real-time information on transit times and dollar costs for each approach. Hence, a resident of St-Lambert or Longueuil could instantaneously access the dollar costs and travel times of each route — for both private and public transport. Information could be updated continuously to reflect the degree of congestion on each approach to the island, and prices could vary depending upon loads.
This is all feasible in the here and now. All we need in order to achieve short travel times and substantial environmental benefits is a little political vision.
Ian Irvine is a professor of economics at Concordia University and an associate researcher at the Montreal Economic Institute. The views reflected in this op-ed are his own.