In praise of toll roads

When the mayor of a car-reliant suburban municipality calls for road tolls, you pay attention. When that mayor is Mississauga’s legendary Hazel McCallion, you sit straight up in your seat.

Marcus Gee
The Globe and Mail
April 10, 2010

Ms. McCallion told a radio reporter this week that Toronto-region leaders have to at least consider putting tolls on 400-series highways to help build better roads and transit. “Somebody’s got to pay for it,” she said.

Well, precisely. Two developments in the past month suggest the money isn’t going to come from government coffers.

The hard-pressed government of Ontario announced that it was withdrawing $4-billion of promised funding for Toronto transit, delaying the rollout of light rapid transit lines to the city’s inner suburbs. A Board of Trade report said that the average Toronto commuting time of 80 minutes put it dead last among 19 urban centres, behind even notoriously gridlocked Los Angeles.

Congestion is getting worse by the year. A report by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development last fall said that it is already costing $3.3-billion a year in delays and lost productivity, a figure that is bound to rise as the region grows.

Seven out of 10 Toronto commuters depend on their cars. Hopes of luring them with better mass transit are fading. Metrolinx, the regional transit agency, has a $50-billion master plan for mass transit with no clue how to pay for it.

Road tolls could help solve both problems. Traffic initially dropped by 15 per cent when London introduced a congestion toll in 2003. Trips within the congestion zone in central London sped up by 10 to 15 per cent. Stockholm saw traffic fall 20 per cent when it brought in its London-style congestion charge in 2006.

London earmarks the revenue from its tolls directly for improving roads and public transportation. Toronto could do the same. A 2008 panel on Toronto’s finances concluded that putting modest tolls on the Gardiner Expressway, the DVP and the local 400-series highways could raise $700-million a year for transit.

Motorists naturally rebel at the prospect of tolling. Already saddled with hefty gas taxes, insurance bills, licence fees, and, since 2008, the vehicle registration tax, they don’t see why they should pay for the privilege of staring at someone else’s licence plate as they edge their way through traffic every day. “You have to persuade people who pay the tolls that they are going to make the money back, through better public transit or better roads,” says University Of Alberta economist Robin Lindsey.

Unlike drivers in the United States or Europe, where tolled highways and bridges are commonplace, Canadians believe they have a God-given right to use the roads for free. Drivers who think nothing of paying a hefty parking fee to leave their car standing still for a few hours are outraged at the idea of paying when it is in motion. “It becomes cultural,” says urban thinker Lawrence Solomon. “You get used to it being free and you stop thinking critically about it.” But tolls are ultimately in the drivers’ interest.

When something is free, people tend to use it indiscriminately. The apartment dweller who pays a flat rate for electricity will keep the lights blazing and the air-conditioner humming even when he doesn’t really need them. The same goes for roads. They are a classic example of the “tragedy of the commons,” in which shepherds with free access to a common pasture destroy it through overgrazing.

Motorists, like the shepherds, consider the roads common property with no cost attached. In fact, when traffic blocks the roads, society pays an enormous cost, not just in lost productivity through congestion, but in pollution, traffic accidents and wear and tear on the roadways. The cost is borne by all taxpayers, whether they drive or not. The renter at Jane and Finch who takes the bus to work pays along with the Lexus driver from Oakville.

Put a price on driving the roads, and drivers will start changing their behaviour, travelling in off-peak hours, switching to public transit where available or making one big trip a week to the mall instead of three or four shorter trips. Those who need to get someplace fast and on time will pay the toll, as thousands of motorists do every day on Toronto’s private 407 toll way.

Bringing in pay-as-you-drive roads would, in effect, create a market in road use, replacing the Soviet-style queuing that prevails now with a system that allows motorists to buy an improved driving experience through shorter travel time.

Innovations such as global satellite positioning and in-car transponders are making road pricing easier and ultimately cheaper, turning the old toll booth with its change basket into an anachronism. Germany’s Toll Collect system calculates truck tolls with a mix of roadside sensors, GPS and cell-phone links.

Highways such as the 403 and 404 already have HOV (high-occupancy vehicle) lanes to encourage car-pooling. Those could be made into HOT (high-occupancy toll) lanes, allowing solo drivers to use them if they were prepared to pay a price.

A truly comprehensive pricing system would put tolls on every road in the city and charge according to how crowded they were and when drivers travelled them. The Gardiner westbound at 5 p.m. might cost 25 cents a kilometre, King Street downtown 10 cents. A quiet residential street at midnight might cost a tenth of a cent.

Congestion is as deadly for cities as clogged arteries are for people. Road pricing offers a plausible cure.

Read the original story here

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