It’s a four-letter word to most Greater Toronto Area motorists.
The concept of asking people to pay for driving on certain roads is nothing new. Tolls have been proposed at least three times in little more than a decade, rejected in each case as politically unpalatable.
But now they’re being discussed again. A blue-ribbon panel on the city’s finances said in February that placing tolls on city highways could raise $700 million a year.
Queen’s Park rejected the recommendation. But Toronto Mayor David Miller said tolls deserve “very serious” consideration and Metrolinx, the provincial transportation planning agency, is studying various forms of “road pricing.”
While the much-maligned Highway 407 remains the GTA’s only toll road, the idea of charging users for vehicle trips is seen as a way to finance transit infrastructure and, by cutting car usage, ease congestion and combat global warming.
The underlying idea is simple enough — if roads are considered “free,” then motorists won’t use them wisely. It’s supply and demand, according to Metrolinx chair Rob MacIsaac.
“We use pricing to allocate scarce resources in almost every other aspect of our society,” MacIsaac said. “At the moment, we’re using time — that’s the allocator for road space.
“It’s a question of how long you’re prepared to wait for it.”
Though rejecting suggestions tolls on GTA roads are inevitable, MacIsaac said we face “a hard choice” in determining how best to ease congestion. “I think ..... if we carry on with our current route, that the consequence will be longer and longer waits for road space.”
London’s five-year-old congestion charge, which makes motorists pay to drive into the core area on weekdays, is the most high-profile road-pricing initiative being studied by Metrolinx. But a host of toll schemes from around the world are under review, including some that target trucks, peak-time travel, high-occupancy lanes, vehicle weight and emissions, as well as those modelled on Highway 407 transponder technology.
“It’s a fact, in the current situation, roads are underpriced,” said Eric Miller, professor of transportation planning and civil engineering at the University of Toronto.
People understand the personal costs of their driving in terms of factors such as time, gas or parking, Miller said. But there’s little grasp of what economists call “externalities” of that travel, he said, pointing to the work time lost to congestion and the health costs of pollution.
Miller thinks a carbon tax on all drivers, rather than a congestion charge, makes sense in the GTA because much of the heavy traffic and increased emissions comes from highway motorists, he said.
“It’s a way of raising money for transit that’s so desperately needed, which would provide an improved alternative for people to get out of their car,” Miller said.
“It’s not a question of saying, `You can’t make that trip,’ but a fair market value should be charged for it.”
In February, the British Columbia government introduced North America’s first consumer-based carbon tax on all fossil fuels. For drivers, it will add 2.4 cents per litre at the pumps beginning in July, rising to 7.2 cents per litre by 2012.
But Kris Barnier, of CAA Ontario, said motorists are already paying “more than their fair share.” In addition to taxes that make up about one-third of the price of a litre of gasoline — including levies for public transit — drivers fork out for car licence and registration fees, property taxes and other costs that more than offset the tab for roads.
The Canadian Taxpayers Federation said in its most recent annual report on the issue that Ontario motorists paid $4.1 billion on gas taxes, vehicle registration and licensing fees in 2006-07, while only $1.9 billion — 48 per cent — was spent on building and fixing roads.
“Roads are not free,” Barnier said.
Creating toll roads would shift congestion onto smaller roads as drivers try to avoid paying, Barnier said. Instead of trying to tax people out of their cars, he said, the key is to improve alternatives: extend the subway, increase GO service and parking at stations, develop more transit hubs, urge business to allow more staff to work from home, and boost carpooling with HOV lanes.
“We’ve never taken the approach that it should be cars only,” Barnier said. “There’s just so many other options (than road tolling).”
London had exhausted its options when it introduced the fee, said Graeme Craig, director of congestion charging with Transport for London. “Less intrusive” measures such as transit improvements, parking restrictions and incentives for walkers and cyclists were unsuccessful in easing gridlock.
With 85 per cent of those coming into London’s core each day already using transit — compared with 23 per cent in Toronto — only relatively modest improvements were needed to accommodate people who stopped using their cars, Craig said. The decrease in vehicles entering on the first day of the charge — more than 20 per cent — has remained consistent, he said.
The toll revenues, $250 million in 2007, are by law being spent on buses, roads and bridges, safety and amenities for walking and cycling.
“Things had to get to the point where the existing solutions clearly were not working before the general populous was prepared to accept that a congestion charge would form part of the answer,” Craig said.