Marginal Cost of Transportation Again: Time or Tolls

On a recent podcast, recorded at CNU22, Chuck interviewed John Yung from the Cincinnati urbanism blog and podcast UrbanCincy. They touched on the ongoing saga of the Brent Spence bridge, and John mentioned Ohio wanted tolls to pay for the Public-Private Partnership (P3) funded expansion. He said that irate citizens at public meetings had grumbled that, if the expanded new bridge was tolled, well they’d just drive out of their way and use the other bridges.

Chuck noted:

“It sets up an interesting case study, where you could have one bridge that was tolled, and another one where the ‘price’ you would be paying was your time.”

Listening from Vancouver, that sounded awfully familiar.

Port Mann Bridge

Just outside award-winningly liveable walkable green utopia Vancouver, we provincial taxpayers are the proud funders of the widest bridge in the world. (Take that, Sydney!)

For the cynic, there are many fun stories about this bridge. My personal favourite is the ice bombs: in cold weather, those beautiful suspension lines gathered frozen water in such clumps that they started falling off and smashing cars. We’ve now deployed robots to help keep them clear.

Like the Cincinnati proposal, the business case for this bridge was tolled-P3, and (no surprise here) the traffic projections haven't materialised, despite being the obvious connection between two fast highways on a major commuter route.

As in Cincinnati, people have other options. Indeed, in a grotesque hypocritical caricature of equity, the province made the preservation of untolled options a condition of tolling, and so the bridge tolling company themselves includes this helpful map of alternatives on their website.

And how much might you save by avoiding the $3 toll? Very little, if anything, once you account for gas costs, as this helpful widget from Todd Litman and the Vancouver Sun demonstrates.


And as Todd points out, counting only gas is really low-balling it. Driving further means more wear and tear, which brings repair and maintenance costs round quicker. It adds to your mileage and hence depreciation. And - the biggest irony of all - it doesn’t factor in the cost of the driver’s time, which was the very justification for building the bridge in the first place.

(Of course, this would never happen with a robotaxi….)

Dude, where’s my cars?

But despite some drivers going out of their way to avoid the toll, perhaps the low traffic numbers on the bridge are simply reflective of declining car numbers everywhere. On the podcast, John noted the context for the Brent Spence bridge debate was declining Vehicle Miles Travelled (VMT) and the cultural-demographic trend to the reurbanisation of America as the suburban experiment crumbles.

Sightline’s DOT-forecast #fail chart is well known by now.

Gordon Price - who hosted Chuck’s curbside chat here - has gone blue in the face pointing up the shameless idiocy and bare-faced hypocrasies in all these faulty forecasts, excuses and fiscal waste. Click through for the fun.

But never mind the pesky facts: our Province of British Columbia is full steam ahead with another three billion-dollar bridge, while demanding a confused and heavily constrained referendum on any more transit.

Good luck Cincinnati. Here’s hoping your drivers and state leaders are able to learn from the wilful ignorance of ours.