Toronto Mayor John Tory is ready to take big steps to fix the city’s congestion woes, saying that “for decades now we have been underinvesting… and we see it and feel it every day.” To that end, he’s outlined a plan which, among other initiatives, calls for tolls to be implemented on the Don Valley Parkway and Gardiner Expressway, arterial highways that allow motorists to reach and traverse the downtown core.
In a speech to Toronto’s Board of Trade today, the Mayor stated that Toronto needed to spend $33 billion on essential building projects over the next 20 years, most of which are public roads and transit. He also expressed that the city needs to find a fair way to pay for it. The Mayor wants to build more subways and more light rail, as the current systems are over capacity. Much of the city’s current infrastructure is no longer adequate or is in need of urgent repair.
The Mayor claims that a $2 toll would generate more than $200 million in revenue every year and that the city would put every dollar of that sum back into roads and transit. Those investments in transit, including $840 million promised by the Federal government that must be matched by the city, could go a long way to improving commute times and reducing congestion for the millions who live in Toronto, and the millions who commute daily into the city for work. In a Q&A session following the speech, Mayor Tory said that he would present his plan for the expansion of transit and reduction of congestion in the coming weeks. When asked why the two routes were chosen for tolls, Tory said that it was to be fair. He claimed that 40 percent of users of those roads did not live in Toronto. They are also the two routes most in need of repair and rebuilding.
The statement is a big about-face from Tory, who called tolls “highway robbery” and protested against them in his 2003 mayoral campaign. The measures would require approval from council, as well as from the province. The $2 toll is not a firm number either, with the Mayor deferring the actual rate to be set later, calling the $2 just an example. Actual rates, the technology used to collect the toll, and whether it will be a flat rate or be based on distance travelled – these decisions will be made by city staff if Council approves the tolls. The earliest expected date for a toll is 2019.
Toronto’s traffic congestion is reaching dangerous levels, in regards to both public safety and economic damages. A study by GPS provider TomTom showed that Toronto ranked sixth worst in North America for traffic congestion. The city has roads and public transit systems that operate over capacity, and that congestion has real costs. Not just in time, which sees an average Toronto area commuter spend nearly twice as long commuting as they would with no congestion, but in money. A report recently released by the Conference Board of Canada suggests that the total cost of this congestion could reach nearly $13 billion per year.
How can a city improve this? They can build more roads, but there is little free space. They can increase public transit, and they can add carpool lanes, but these cost money. The challenge, then, is finding the funds to pay for it. The increasingly frequent answer seems to be road tolls. Ontario and Newfoundland have recently introduced higher fuel taxes, but those have been wildly unpopular. They are also less effective as electric car use increases and fuel economy improves. Despite having a greater impact in terms of costs and inconvenience, tolls seem to be slightly less unpopular, and therefore an easier issue to push through.
The tolling of roads and highways in Canada has always been a tough political issue, and for that reason, they are rare here. The main toll routes are the 407 Express Toll Route around Toronto, the A-30 bypassing Montreal, and the Cobequid Pass section of the Trans-Canada highway in Nova Scotia. A stretch of toll highway in New Brunswick in 1999 lead to the downfall of the government that proposed it and saw already-built toll plazas be demolished before collecting any funds. The majority of pay-to-use roads in Canada are bridges and tunnels, many of them at provincial or international borders.
In the case of the 407, A-30, and Trans Canada in Nova Scotia, the tolls allowed major infrastructure improvements at levels that the provinces could not afford otherwise. While the decisions were unpopular, the routes are all heavily used and have improved congestion and safety.
More provinces are looking at following the toll road lead. In Nova Scotia, the government is facing calls to twin more high-risk stretches of road. They have been proposing tolls to fund this. New Brunswick is looking at placing a toll at the Nova Scotia border to increase their own revenue. That’s a common trend for toll roads in Canada, and explains why they are more popular – or at least face less resistance – than gas taxes. Place the tolls where your constituents will be minimally affected. Let somebody else pay for it. The Cobequid Pass toll can be bypassed easily, as can the A-30. The 407 duplicates existing routes, so needs only be used by those who choose to pay for the benefits. The Gardiner and Don Valley routes are heavily used by those coming from outside the city, using Toronto roads without paying Toronto property taxes. That makes the tolls easier to enact for a Mayor, especially if the money is used to build proposed new subway routes that will make the commute easier for city dwellers. It’s also why we can probably expect to see more tolls and in more places in the next few years, all in an effort to pay for road construction and decrease traffic congestion.
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