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FORUM: Fairness and cleaner air (Dec. 2017)

December 15th, 2017 · No Comments

A case for road tolls

By Tim Grant

Why is the idea of charging drivers for the use of roads something that provincial politicians steadfastly avoid?

Twenty years ago, the then Premier Mike Harris downloaded the costs of maintaining the Don Valley Parkway and the Gardiner Expressway to the City of Toronto. Since that time, Toronto has been the only city in Ontario that has to pay for provincial highways. To date, we have paid $1.5 billion for highways that others use for free.

To date, we have paid $1.5 billion for highways that others use for free.

A year ago, Mayor John Tory asked Premier Kathleen Wynne for permission to charge tolls on those two highways. Although she had previously expressed a willingness to give such permission, this time around the premier said no. The NDP and Conservatives also said no. Worse, not one of the three major parties offered to take back the maintenance costs that Harris had downloaded onto Toronto. Instead, they betrayed Toronto in order to win votes in the 905 belt around the city.

For many years, drivers across the Greater Toronto Area have endured some of the worst traffic congestion in North America. Virtually every major transportation report in Ontario in the last five years has acknowledged that the only way to deal with Toronto’s severe traffic congestion and build the transit we need is to charge drivers something for using the roads. Quite apart from the views of transportation experts, there is also a question of fairness. When you and I get on the TTC, our fares help to cover 76 per cent of the cost of the transit system. But according to a 2008 study by Statistics Canada, drivers pay only 40 per cent of the cost of the roads.

Unfortunately, none of the main political parties have a strategy for reducing traffic congestion. Nor do they acknowledge what the experts already know: that in and of itself, providing better public transit has only a small impact on the roads.

By contrast, road tolls are a proven means of reducing traffic congestion. Experience elsewhere tells us that if all the revenue from road tolls goes to improving transit, 15 to 30 per cent of drivers will switch to transit. Those that would switch were only driving because they had no alternative. The remaining drivers — those that will pay the tolls — enjoy a significant benefit. They will spend less time stuck in traffic. And because of tolls, all of us will breathe cleaner air.

Tolls have come a long way over the years. No one installs toll booths anymore, and the cost of the tolls usually varies depending on the level of congestion. For example, if you are driving out the city during the morning rush hour, you might pay a dollar, while those driving into the city might pay $2.50 to $3.00. In off-peak hours, the charges would be minimal or waived altogether.

One objection to tolls is that they are unfair to those of the poor who have no choice but to drive. But those who take public transit also pay for their rides. And with reduced congestion, all drivers will get to work faster. Some, such as tradespeople, may actually earn more money because of tolls.

However critics who say that it is unfair to charge tolls until better transit is available have a good point. In 2003, on the very first day that the City of London’s congestion charge came into effect, there were 3,000 new buses on the road to meet the increased demand for transit. When the province of Ontario finally agrees to road tolls — and it is only a question of when — a similar investment will be needed here.

Isn’t it time for Ontario’s political parties to have an adult conversation about how we’re going to reduce traffic congestion and pay for transit?

Tim Grant is the Green Party of Ontario’s Transportation Critic, its candidate in University-Rosedale, and the former chair of the Harbord Village Residents’ Association.

Tags: Annex · Opinion