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Road pricing could jam Vancouver’s exit ramps

Traffic tolls would hollow out city’s core that has seen more than 1,300 businesses leave downtown in the past eight years, board of trade warns
Downtown tolls would accelerate exodus, GVBOT warns. | BIV file photo

A plan by the City of Vancouver to place a toll on automobiles entering the downtown could accelerate one-way business traffic out of the core, the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade (GVBOT) has warned city council.

City of Vancouver council will debate a city staff recommendation November 3 that tolls – “transport pricing fees” – should be used to curb traffic into the downtown business district.

It is part of the city’s proposed $500 million “climate emergency action plan” that goes before city council for adoption.

“The Greater Vancouver Board of Trade has real concerns over proposals to charge vehicles to enter the city centre, which could spell disaster for downtown businesses who are already struggling in the wake of COVID-19,” GVBOT president and CEO Bridgitte Anderson stated in a in letter to council, released November 2.

The downtown is already losing businesses at a steady clip, Anderson warned, and road tolls would further jam the exit ramps.

Vancouver’s population has increased by 40,000 over the past eight years, but the city lost 1,356 established businesses in the same period – and this was before the impact of COVID-19, the GVBOT noted.

Since the pandemic began, the downtown has started to resemble a “ghost town,” Anderson said, with vacancies soaring in some office towers.

Vancouver’s downtown office vacancy rate has increased 30 per cent since the pandemic began, according to third-quarter study from NAI Commercial, which reported that 717,000 square feet of leased downtown office space has been shoved back on the market as subleases.

“The City of Vancouver was already losing businesses prior to the pandemic, while other cities in the region were experiencing double digit increases,” Anderson stated, noting that Surrey has seen a 12 per cent increase in commercial and industrial businesses since 2013.

“A transport pricing scheme specific to the City of Vancouver would further threaten the viability of businesses,” the GVBOT letter stated.

Calling the traffic toll idea a “game changer,” a 371-page city staff report said transport pricing is the key measure in the city’s climate emergency action plan, which is meant to reduce carbon emissions in the city.

Transport pricing would see a portion of vehicle trips in the metro core area taxed with a fee “to account for and improve carbon emissions, air quality, noise, safety, congestion and the use of public space,” the city staff report said.

Vancouver has not released any estimate of its proposed transport pricing fee.

Staff’s argument for pricing vehicle trips is that it can encourage people to choose a sustainable mode of transportation or shift departure times, routes or destinations.

“This idea needs to be parked for now,” said Charles Gauthier, president and CEO of the Vancouver Downtown Business Improvement Association.

Gauthier said his organization was never consulted on the plan and it is only now studying the staff report. “I don’t think the city took into consideration the effect on downtown businesses [of a traffic toll].”