Despite strong opposition among drivers, road tolls are now a serious possibility. The independent panel on Toronto’s finances recently recommended user fees for the city-owned Gardiner Expressway and Don Valley Parkway as well as other GTA highways.
Although the Ontario government rejects tolls on provincially-owned roads, the regional transportation agency it created could end up supporting such a plan.
You can be pretty sure the municipal politicians who sit on the Metrolinx board do not relish the idea of pushing tolls — many motorists are set against paying more to drive and they will make things hot for any official who proposes it.
To argue against “road pricing,” you have to believe there are other sources of money for maintaining and expanding our transport network. Infrastructure gobbles a lot of cash as subway tunnels and highways age and need extensive repair. Brand new rail lines, buses or pavement need more funds on top of that, and most of the existing revenue streams are accounted for.
What’s more, even the projects already proposed for the GTA may not be anywhere near enough to make up for past underfunding as well as the massive growth in traffic expected in the next decade.
Drivers often point out taxes are already embedded in the cost of fuel, and this form of user fee should be spent directly on highways. In fact, both the federal government and Queen’s Park have boosted their spending on roads, bridges and transit in recent years. Plus, every dollar that gets switched to roads means less for other societal priorities such as health and education.
What about making transit riders pay for new lines through higher fares? One major drawback: Substantial price hikes will drive “choice” commuters back onto the roads, and that won’t help traffic conditions.
Raising taxes for the general population may be another alternative — but if you think tolls are politically difficult, try getting elected on a tax-hike pledge. Or perhaps our governments should just borrow more, but eventually the principal and interest has to come from taxpayers. Alternate financing? Get started convincing Bay Street.
Those who dislike tolls may even push the privatization of transit as a way of removing the tax burden, but experience elsewhere has shown that too often government subsidy goes up — not down — when companies run subways and buses. And once you start talking about the private sector buying transport infrastructure, why shouldn’t highways be up for grabs, too? In that case, tolls are nigh inevitable.
Opposition to road-pricing schemes may scare elected officials into postponing their arrival, but if crowding on roads and trains continues to grow — not to mention overall concern about the climate — then popular opinion will inexorably shift toward charging for the use of pavement.
Ed Drass has been covering transportation issues in Toronto since 1998. He has a degree in urban studies from York University and regularly rides transit in the GTA and elsewhere.