A map showing the limited access points to the Halifax Peninsula, making it a natural candidate for cordon tolling, from The Feasibility of Implementing a Congestion Charge on the Halifax Peninsula, 2011
A map showing the limited access points to the Halifax Peninsula, making it a natural candidate for cordon tolling, from the report, The Feasibility of Implementing a Congestion Charge on the Halifax Peninsula, 2011

There’s an oft-cited though oft-ignored truth in transportation planning. I like to express it in Field of Dreams terms: if you build it, they will come.

When faced with clogged roads, we often respond by building more road capacity, if we can afford it. But after incurring the debt required to build more vehicle lanes, we find that they inevitably fill up, leaving us back where we started.

And so some cities in the world have been responding to this traffic feedback loop with another tool: congestion pricing.

The economists at Canada’s Ecofiscal Commission, (“a group of independent, policy-minded Canadian economists working together to align Canada’s economic and environmental aspirations,”) have authored a report entitled “We Can’t Get There From Here: Why Pricing Traffic Congestion is Critical to Beating It.” The 2015 report recommends that Canadian cities, big and small, start experimenting with congestion charges.

The report writers posit that congestion pricing is “the crucial, missing piece of a broader, coordinated package of policies to create greater mobility for a growing urban population.” Congestion charges, they say, can make investments in transportation infrastructure pay off, and vice versa:

More public transit, roads, and cycling infrastructure provide drivers with alternatives, making it easier for them to respond to the congestion price by changing their behaviour. They are essential complements to congestion pricing. But without addressing the fundamental issue of misaligned incentives around free access to roads, traffic congestion in Canadian cities will only get worse.

I first considered the idea of a congestion pricing in the Halifax context after interviewing Halifax Harbour Bridges CEO Steve Snider in May 2015. Snider is in the unique position of running Halifax’s only piece of infrastructure that is 100% paid for by user fees. (Well, there is the occasional low interest loan from the province, as well.)

When I suggested that toll revenue from the HHB might be better controlled by a transportation authority, Snider dismissed the idea of bridge users funding other parts of our transportation infrastructure, and instead brought up the idea of cordon tolling, and the example of London, England, where vehicle drivers entering a certain designated area pay a fee. While not endorsing the idea, Snider said, “if you want to impact how people make decisions about their transportation, for a lot of us it really comes down to pricing.”

Snider also pointed out that there is a general shift from trying to fund transportation solely with gas taxes towards more toll structures. “Governments are struggling with how to price transportation. Gas taxes don’t cut it anymore. We don’t generate enough in gas taxes to support our transportation system,” he said. “As a result, tolls have been growing exponentially. Toll facilities are just booming.”

In 2011 a group of public policy academics published a study on the feasibility of introducing a congestion charge for the Halifax Peninsula.

The key to making congestion charges work, according to the report’s authors, is all in how you do it. What you charge, where you charge it, and what you do with the generated revenue are among the things that will make or break the success of a congestion charge policy. You need to consider everything from the technology used, to the parking policies in place near where charges are incurred, to the public understanding of the rationale behind the charges.

Naturally, one of the biggest factors of success is alternatives: viable, convenient ways to get around for people who actually decide to leave their cars at home. The 2011 report points out that the success of cordon tolling in London and Singapore depended on the excellence of existing public transit in those cities. And a successful pilot project in Stockholm was directly tied to big improvements in the transit system there to coincide with new fees. The report states:

A jurisdiction should not invoke a congestion charge without first giving serious consideration towards how it will develop comprehensive, integrated, and quality transport options. This includes consideration given to buses, bikes, ferries, among other modes. The issues of access, scheduling and pricing, quality, coordination, and a comprehensive transit plan are all important.

In Halifax, that would mean a significant ramp up of investment in not just transit, but in active transportation routes and facilities. And it seems like we may be posed to make such investments, depending on the direction outlined in our under-construction Integrated Mobility Plan (IMP).

However, as both reports point out, as we ramp up these investments we may need some type of congestion charge to ensure the success of our new infrastructure. So not just a carrot, and not just a stick, but both used in concert.

Congestion pricing could dramatically affect the success of ideas like commuter rail, high speed ferries, or bus rapid transit in Halifax, and we might need to consider it as part and parcel of these higher orders of transit.

One of the big concerns I have about congestion charges is the issue of equity. Are they fair? Wouldn’t we be excluding those with lower incomes from a convenient, already expensive transportation option?

There’s no doubt that strictly speaking, tolls are regressive. They don’t take into account income level. But it’s not so simple. For starters, lots of low income folks are already at a disadvantage when it comes to being able to afford a vehicle. And since congestion charges have the benefit of producing revenue ideally used to improve or create more equitable transportation options, they stand a good chance of balancing out their regressive aspects. Done properly, with adequate alternatives in place, congestion charges could help improve equity in transportation.

So is the city even remotely considering the possibility of a congestion charge? Well, yes, it’s on the table, along with just about everything else. City spokesperson Tiffany Chase says, “transportation financing is one of the components of the Integrated Mobility Plan, and ideas of this nature will be part of that assessment.”

The city has announced the first round of public consultations for the Integrated Mobility Plan, which will probably be the most important document we create next to our Regional Plan. The decisions and actions laid out in it will make or break those laid out in our other plans, including the Centre Plan and local community plans. The IMP will also be the place where we consider things like higher order transit and congestion pricing, and how they might work together to alleviate traffic and save us money in the long run.

If you can afford the time to have your say about transportation in Halifax, show up for an afternoon (3pm) or evening (6pm) session at one of the following places and dates:

Wednesday, Sept. 21 at Cole Harbour Place
Thursday, Sept. 22 at Sunnyside Mall
Wednesday, Sept. 28 at Exhibition Centre
Thursday, Sept. 29 at Alderney Landing

If not, be sure to contact the city’s IMP team online with your two cents.

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  1. I agree with the other commentators that the traffic situation in Halifax (on the peninsula) is not bad enough to merit a congestion fee. Creating bus lanes at access points, as well as on major roads like Quinpool, Robie, Windsor, Connaught, etc. during peak periods would make bus travel much faster and more attractive, as would reducing the number of bus stops (is it me or do most buses stop every 50 metres on the peninsula?) and increasing the frequency of buses (why does the 14 still only come once every half-hour during peak periods?). Also, make the monthly transit pass cheaper (yes, a greater subsidy). I am still not sure if rail is feasible, but perhaps the money could be found by eliminating some of the corporate welfare in the province. Or, maybe the solution to congestion can be found here: http://jetpackaviation.com/

  2. The problem with congestion pricing in Halifax is that Halifax is not particularly congested. Or at least not nearly enough that most citizens will accept such a thing. It has greater traffic problems than a small city should have, due to the limited peninsular access points, and an under-developed transit system. But it’s still not all that bad. If much more congested Canadian cities (i.e., all of the major ones and some of the smaller ones as well) have not developed congestion charges, it seems almost impossible to imagine policymakers here doing so first.

    We should try to implement a truly effective commuter transit system first, whether that takes the form of bus or rail. (In addition to overall, all-day transit improvements, of course.)

    1. A light rail system operating on existing rail beds serviced by electric trains that would travel over all of Halifax, Dartmouth, Eastern Passage, Windsor Junction, and Beaverbank with expansion opportunity to Enfield and Tantallon with bus routes feeding into the train station is actually the solution. The #GreenInterconnectedRapidTransitsystem is the future. Mayor Savage has seen the proposal and prefers to use the next phase of public transit money – expected in five years – on the diesel commuter rail. We should jump the diesel and invest ASAP in green transport. Let’s go!

  3. I have trouble accepting that Halifax is big enough to justify congestion pricing, or bold enough to put in good transit as an alternative. This could just encourage further gutting of the downtown, as businesses and offices choose to locate outside of the cordoned area. There are better ways to pay for transit than new tolls.

  4. Charging for entry into downtown worked in London England. Who knows? It may work jhere as well. Better than tearing up Bayer’s Road which is a total step BACKWARDS!!!!.