Good tolls, bad tolls

Lawrence Solomon
FP comment
November 28, 2008

The Greater Toronto Area needs a gazillion dollars to fund Metrolinx, a mega mega transportation system of light rail, commuter trains, subways, highways, roads, and bicycle paths designed to reach every ward in an 8,000 square kilometre operating region approaching six million people. It will cost more than governments can afford, say its government backers.

The answer, the backers say, is a toll road system that extends across the GTA and finances the transit megaproject.

I have a better idea. Install the GTA-wide toll road system and scrap Metrolinx. Once roads are tolled, the population growth that is now projected for Toronto’s environs — the main driver for Metrolinx — will plummet, along with the need for new transit infrastructure.The monies raised in tolls from the GTA’s more stable population can then be returned to GTA residents — the owners of the roads — through lower property taxes, lower gas taxes and lower vehicle registration fees.

Toll road systems work, as proven in numerous jurisdictions around the world. They reduce or eliminate traffic congestion which in turn lowers travel times, which in turn lowers the cost of taking a cab or of running a bus, which in turn increases these vehicles market share, which in turn increases their financial viability, which in turn helps taxi, bus, subway and streetcar systems expand, which in turn lets public transit provide better service, which in turn makes people less dependent on cars.

This virtuous circle spills off road, too: Tolled areas suffer fewer accidents, leading to fewer hospital visits and lower automobile insurance costs; they reduce air pollution, benefitting pedestrians and drivers alike. Little wonder that toll road systems with integrity — those designed to recover costs through user fees rather than to fill government coffers or fund pet projects — tend to find favour with the public. Stockholm’s population decided by referendum to keep its road toll system after a six-month trial; London voted in a mayor who campaigned on the promise to introduce a toll road system. Governments worldwide are now working to introduce toll road systems, knowing that voter reaction tends to be favourable.

GTA transportation planners are going about everything backwards. Instead of building toll roads on their own merits, and building transit facilities only where needed to handle the extra transit business that comes from people switching away from their private automobiles, GTA planners start with their megalomaniacal transit schemes and then tack on toll roads as a funding mechanism.

Public transit systems are boons to society, efficient people movers that are indispensable to a well functioning economy — when there are people to move. Without people in sufficient numbers — as in predominantly suburban and rural GTA — transit systems become societal drags, their near-empty vehicles doing harm to the environment as well as the economy. When put to such uses, public transit cripples cities, creates sprawl, and ultimately undermines the province as a whole.

Prior to the creation of Metropolitan Toronto in 1953, the city of Toronto had an exemplary public transit system in its Toronto Transportation Commission, all of its routes money makers. Once Metro Toronto came into being, the TTC’s political masters required it to service the low density suburban areas in Metropolitan Toronto. In this it succeeded — by running near empty buses along suburban routes on a frequent schedule, the TTC made suburban life feasible, leading to the population of the rural areas outside the city limits. This suburban sprawl came at a cost to the environment, and to the city as well — to cover the losses on its money-losing routes outside the city, the TTC starved city routes of services, ultimately turning off customers. In the end, virtually all TTC routes, whether in the city or the suburb, became money losers, to the economic harm of all.

This scenario is about to be repeated by the GTA and Metrolinx, a 21st century counterpart to Metro Toronto and the TTC. By extending transit services to areas that cannot support transit on their own, the Toronto region is embarking on another round of uneconomic development that will see its rural areas and prime farmland paved over at a loss.

The city of Toronto and the province of Ontario face new hardship as well, as spelled out in a recent report from TD Economics. Because the property tax system already provides incentives for companies to move jobs out of the city core, TD explains, a subsidized Metrolinx “would inevitably exacerbate sprawl and the negative externalities it inflicts by making it more convenient for people and companies to locate further away from Toronto.” The TD report is written in the context of “where the Ontario economy will be in 2020. Will it continue to wither? Or, will Ontario manage to regain the kind of dominant economic presence that bestowed abundant benefits to residents in past decades?”

Rather than Ontario withering, Metrolinx should.

Lawrence Solomon is executive director of Urban Renaissance Institute, and author of The Deniers: The world-renowned scientists who stood up against global warming hysteria, political persecution, and fraud.

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