Four Reasons Why Road Tolls Are a Good Idea
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Four Reasons Why Road Tolls Are a Good Idea

They'll benefit everyone—motorists and non-motorists.

The Gardiner Expressway. Photo by Vik Pahwa from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

The Gardiner Expressway. Photo by Vik Pahwa from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

The first thing to note about proposed tolls on the Don Valley Parkway and Gardiner Expressway is that they’ll benefit everyone—drivers and non-drivers.

Drivers should notice the highways are less congested and their trips faster, as some motorists opt for other means of transportation. Transit riders should notice service improvements as toll-generated dollars help the City invest in capital projects such as the downtown relief line.

Details still need to be confirmed, but the thrust of the mayor’s plan is clear. Drivers would pay a flat—not distance-based—fee of two to three dollars. That would generate about $200 million annually for transit and road improvements.

The policy requires provincial permission (not a major hurdle) and Council approval. Early vote counts suggest about 30 councillors support the plan. Given the mayor’s popularity, it would be shocking if the new measure was shot down.

The toll is likely to be backed by many on the left who desperately want expanded transit and by conservatives who like the fact it would be paid by non-Torontonians currently making no contribution to the city’s road network. (According to chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat, cited in the Star, about 40 per cent of DVP and Gardiner users don’t live in Toronto.) Assuming the proposal is approved in early 2017, revenue could start flowing in by 2019.

Here’s why road tolls are a good idea.

1. They bust congestion.
In a 2015 report [PDF], Canada’s Ecofiscal Commission cited Stockholm’s “congestion charge” requiring drivers to pay between $1.50 and $3 when they entered and left the city’s inner core. (This is similar to the mayor’s proposal, as it charges a flat fee to use certain roads.) “Under Stockholm’s congestion pricing policy, vehicles entering the city core dropped by 20% to 30%,” the report said. A 2016 paper [PDF] authored by Harry Kitchen and Enid Slack of U of T’s Institute on Municipal Finance and Governance found highway tolls have a “large potential to reduce congestion.”

2. Tolls represent a shift in the City Hall conversation.
For too long our civic discussion was dominated by the alleged need to “stop the gravy train.” With Mayor John Tory’s embrace of road tolls, even conservatives are admitting Toronto’s problem is not primarily overspending but insufficient revenue. This was, perhaps, the most important sentence in the mayor’s toll announcement, delivered at the Toronto Region Board of Trade to a business audience: “For decades, we have been under-investing as a city in almost everything and those under-investments are having an impact on our residents and on our city.” This language suggests a valuable new framing in which funding infrastructure, not cutting services, is central.

3. Tolls help the city meet its climate target.
Now that Ontario has eliminated coal-fired power, the province’s largest source of greenhouse gas emissions is transportation. Helping Torontonians reduce the use of gas-burning vehicles is crucial if we’re to meet our goal of an 80 per cent reduction in GHGs and avoid drought and flooding. Ecofiscal found that, in Stockholm, tolls incentivized transit use and contributed to a four to 10 per cent cut in GHG emissions.

4. Tolls embody the “polluter pays” principle.
Smart economists know pricing smog is a key strategy in combatting it. There’s no avoiding the fact that car exhaust damages air quality. So it’s only fair that those who enjoy the benefits of driving should be charged for its harms. Entrenching this principle makes us a healthier and more just society.

The mayor’s proposal could have gone further. The David Suzuki Foundation also supports a levy on commercial parking and an alcohol tax.

But we’re gratified Tory is endorsing road tolls. They suggest a welcome new understanding at City Hall that Toronto’s problems are better addressed through pricing pollution than through austerity.

Gideon Forman is a transportation policy analyst at the David Suzuki Foundation.