OTAG says no to road pricing and points out why it's needed

Kevin MacDonald of OTAG (not to be confused with me - of the clan O'Donnell) was kind enough to answer my question on OTAG's road pricing position. In short, OTAG does not support road pricing. His answer is quite detailed and you can read it in full in the comments to my previous post.

In principle a road tax, or a road toll is not something that OTAG would ever consider supporting - Kevin MacDonald, OTAG

MacDonald goes on to make a case for privately run Jitney services which Wikipedia defines as shared taxis - something between a cab and a bus. I can see that making sense for the rural and farther suburban reaches. South Mountain Stagecoach closed last summer due to lack of demand, but maybe a smaller jitney would be easier to run. MacDonald could be right - opening up public transit to include private jitney services could work. Here's MacDonald again, emphasis mine:

If I can make a living picking up passengers who want to use my privately run shuttle bus in order to make use of the Transit network than the city should be considerate of such a program. Remember, LRT is not scheduled to hit the bedroom communities for several years and vehicle congestion will only get worse.

Downtown Ottawa traffic!

I support congestion charges on roads (see below about gas taxes) because they bend incentives towards making coach services like South Mountain, or even MacDonald's jitney services, more viable. They also save property taxpayers money because we don't need as many roads to move just as many people.

Private bus operators should also support road fees, which seems counter-intuitive at first glance. But think about it. As a jitney driver, or larger coach driver, you're in competition with other operators for customers, and in competition with all other road users for space on the roads at rush hour.

Without road fees, a single-occupancy vehicle pays the same as a charter bus, or jitney, for that road space: nothing. Jitney drivers are therefore at a disadvantage and, in MacDonalds words, will have a harder time "making a living".

If you're a jitney driver it's hard to convince people to use your service if they just end up stuck in traffic. I'm pretty sure MacDonald is suggesting that jitney operators would be allowed to use the transitway, or other dedicated lanes. If so, it's only fair to charge them a fee for accessing the transit network. Under such a regime that is road pricing, but only for a limited portion of the overal transit network.

OTAG is suggesting it is in the public interest to allow private operators access to a congestion-free transit network. The implication is jitney services are not viable if they are forced to use regular, congested roads. They don't want access to the transit network because the asphalt is nicer or the routes are better (far from it). They want access because the lanes are not congested.

Now extend the definition of transit network to include every road supplied by the City of Ottawa, instead of only the segregated lanes monopolized by OCTranspo. Is there a way we can make OTAG's jitney service viable by lowering congestion on every road?

Yes there is: congestion charges, and we've come full circle.

I'm not alone in proposing this. Instead of just a fee for jitney drivers to use dedicated lanes, we charge everyone to use any lane. (If you're a cyclist or pedestrian you'll have already noticed that all lanes are already dedicated to cars)

With road fees, say $10 to use the 417 at rush hour, a single driver pays $10 a head, a five passenger jitney operator pays $2 a head, and a charter bus driver might pay $0.30 a head.

Some drivers will still drive, as is their want.

Some drivers will decide, to heck with that, and choose to use a convenient jitney service to get from close to home to the core. They can even read twitter while they do it, or catch a nap. Modest road pricing helps create a market for public/private transit systems, be they LRT, buses, charters, or jitneys. Or even plain old carpooling.

Lastly, some drivers will decide to leave earlier, or later, and avoid a peak-time congestion charge. Even this is good for jitney drivers since it frees up road space (de-congestion). Jitney customers get to work faster, making jitney services even more attractive. We should actually refer to "congestion charges" as "decongestion charges" because that is their primary goal: clear the arteries so the important stuff gets through.

Jitneys with 5 passengers are more important than single-driver cars. But instead of building dedicated lanes for a select few modal types, it's cheaper to simply build roads and charge for them, then let people sort it out for themselves. I don't know anyone in OTAG personally but I'd guess they lean to the right on a political spectrum. Road fees are actually a small-c conservative thing: create incentives that work towards the public interest then let individuals sort out what's best for them.

I'm not against OTAG's jitney idea on principle - I just don't see much point in half measures. Without road pricing cars will always be percieved as cheap and convenient even while the resulting road budgets bankrupt our property tax revenue base.

For OTAG's jitneys to work the incentives need to be changed for everyone. It's not even unfair - if you use roads a lot, you pay for that access. If you bike, walk, jitney, carpool, or ride the bus more you can avoid the dreaded tax man. 

I'd rather be taxed on something I can avoid, than be trapped with ever growing property taxes.

About gas taxes: When I make the case for de-congestion charges people always respond that we already pay gas taxes, so why should we pay even more? Here's an exchange I had with my cousin on Facebook, which I hope explains the difference. 

(my cousin): I think you missed one point here. Drivers do pay for the roads through the gas tax. At least that was supposed to be where the insane gas tax is supposed to go.

(me): that's true, but the gax tax isn't geared to which roads people are using. I'd support cutting the gas tax in half and transferring the other half to specific roads, or specific times of day.

The idea being, we keep building roads so they can handle the peak-rush hour demand (WIDE AND BIG) then sit empty for most of the time.

That's like building a house so you can host all your family for Christmas through New Years. Fun times, and a great party, but pretty damn expensive to keep heated and repaired for the other 51 weeks in the year.

Congestion charges aim to re-balance things. They would help even out rush-hour, and make it possible to leave say Woodroffe at 4 lanes instead of having to make it 6. Saves a lot of money.

The gax tax doesn't help with that.

BTW, I've now typed jitney more than I ever thought a man could. Also, I'm shedding twitter followers like mad this week with all the tweets on congestion charges. It would be so much easier to pander.