Ontario’s opposition parties never miss the chance to use toll roads as a wedge issue, regardless of who is in power. Both Progressive Conservatives and New Democrats argue that introducing tolls would amount to double taxing drivers. But their similar ‘talking points’ mask deeper ideological concerns on both sides.
Conservatives worry that tolls will increase the size of government while the NDP considers tolls regressive. Even if we accept both of these assumptions, road tolls are still a good idea. Tolls do not "double tax" drivers. They charge them for contributing to traffic congestion. Unless we believe that people’s time is worthless, pricing congestion is a very good idea.
In addition, Canada’s roads require expensive maintenance. Tolls are an excellent way of paying for road maintenance. Waiting for other expenditures to be cut to free up revenue for road maintenance ignores the difficulty of government reform, and the urgency of repairing Canada’s roads.
Opposition concerns — both the size of government and the distribution of income — are, in fact, better addressed through other policy channels.
Ultimately, charging for congestion is the only way to get Toronto moving again, and mobility is not a partisan issue.
The recent ruckus over toll roads was precipitated by Premier Kathleen Wynne’s hint that tolls could be used to fund repairs of Ontario’s ageing roads and bridges. The most strident support for tolling highways, ironically, has come from "left-wing" Toronto city councillor Adam Vaughan. Vaughan argues that the City of Toronto should sell the Gardner Expressway to the private sector, and allow the operator to charge tolls. His suggestion may sound familiar to Torontonians because it is precisely what the last PC government did with the 407 Expressway. The 407 is now considered a model for urban highways in North America. PC leader Tim Hudak should know, given that he was part of the PC government that made this decision.
Rather than proposing privatization for ideological reasons, Vaughan recognizes that it will be difficult for the government to come up with the roughly $495 million required to fix the crumbling highway. The Canadian Federation of Municipalities estimated in 2012 that the replacement cost for all Canadian municipal roads in poor to very poor condition is $35.7 billion. Tolling them may be the only way to generate enough revenue to repair them while also easing crippling traffic congestion.
But there is another reason. In the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Areas alone, $6 billion in productivity is lost per year due to traffic congestion. If left unchecked, that will increase to $15 billion annually by 2031.
While all parties seem to believe that the provincial government can significantly reduce congestion through major investments in public transportation, a study by University of Toronto economists Gilles Duranton and Matthew Turner has demonstrated that public transit expansion does little to reduce congestion. But the study also finds that road expansion also doesn’t alleviate congestion. Adding one per cent more roadway capacity tends to generate one per cent more traffic. Unless governments charge for using congested roads at the point of consumption, drivers will simply use new road capacity to drive more. We can’t build our way out of congestion. We can only price it.
Both opposition parties are rightfully concerned about the provincial government potentially overtaxing drivers. But rather than scoring cheap points by railing against "double taxation," they should work with the premier to ensure that all — or at least most — toll revenue is guaranteed to be spent on roads. Ideally, they should see it as an opportunity to create a dedicated fund, comprised of tolls and gas taxes, which dedicates a specific portion of funding to highways, transit, and pedestrian infrastructure.
That would put an end to the debate over whether gas taxes and toll revenues are spent on roads. More importantly, it would help to get Toronto moving again.
Steve Lafleur is a policy analyst with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.