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Conference board report recommends public understanding of transportation user charges

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by DCN News Services

OTTAWA—A new Conference Board of Canada report suggests Canadians need a broader education on the purpose and value of user road charges.
Conference board report recommends public understanding of transportation user charges

According to the report, titled Congestion Costs, Road Capacity and Implications for Policymakers, commissioned by the Canadian Automobile Association South Central Ontario, motorists in Ontario already pay for most road construction and maintenance costs through registration fees and fuel and excise taxes. Despite this, commuters face chronic congestion on Ontario's roads, which has a negative impact on economic productivity and overall quality of life, states the release issued by the board late last month.

As policy-makers look at options intended to improve infrastructure and reduce congestion — such as increased investment in roads, highways and bridges — new ways to pay for these projects are being considered, adds the release.

Road tolls or user fees are considered a means to advance this agenda, but the new report recommends bringing clarity between proposed policy tools and policy goals.

Highlights include:

• Direct charges for road users have long been proposed as a solution to traffic congestion;

• policy-makers need to explain the purpose of congestion fees and measure their effectiveness against the objective — whether it is to generate revenue, change the behaviour of motorists or meet a fairness/equity challenge; and

• road user charges that are intended to raise revenues that could help pay for infrastructure investment and maintenance costs generate the most revenue when motorists do not change their driving patterns. User charges that seek to make the road network more efficient and less congested should be designed to influence the behaviour of drivers so that congestion is reduced.

Louis Theriault, vice-president, public policy for the Conference Board, said "additional fees and charges on drivers are considered as ways to help finance transportation infrastructure and stimulate private investment. In turn, this can reduce congestion and optimize vehicle use. To build public support, policy-makers need to explain what is the best match between pricing tools and the underlying objectives."

In a 2013 report, the Conference Board found that revenues collected from light-duty vehicle users were equal to approximately 70 to 80 per cent of the costs that they impose on the road and bridge network in Ontario. Within the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area, revenues from motorists totalled more than 100 per cent of the total road costs. The board states this should inform the design of financing models including the best public/private funding mix for new transportation infrastructure projects.

Policy-makers need to explain what they hope to achieve with transportation user charges, adds the release.

User charges intended to raise revenue have to be implemented so the behaviour of motorists does not change. In contrast, congestion charges meant to encourage the efficient use of resources and decrease congestion must influence the choices that motorists make, whether it is using alternate routes, starting their trip at a different time, or using another mode of transportation. These have implications for how the public will pay for maintaining existing infrastructure and finance large-scale new infrastructure projects, the release concludes.

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