Why Imposing Tolls on the Gardiner and DVP is a Terrible Idea
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Why Imposing Tolls on the Gardiner and DVP is a Terrible Idea

This is not a serious plan for raising revenue or fighting congestion.

Photo by -liyen- from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

The Don Valley Parkway. Photo by -liyen- from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

Road tolls. At first glance, it looks like we’re finally getting serious about generating revenue for transit. Alas, this is not the adult conversation you are looking for.

Road tolls can have more than one purpose. What is our goal—raising money or changing behaviour? Or both?

These questions might suggest that road tolls are suitable to one but not the other. The answer is they’re suited to neither. They’re a bad idea. They’re not the worst idea circulating in Toronto (the Gardiner rebuild probably takes that prize), but they’re still bad.

Sure, I’ll take road tolls over cutting services, but why should anyone make such a choice?

Road tolls are unfair. Several people have raised the good point that more wealthy citizens drive—but if we manage to tax the wealthy more than the poor with a road toll, it’s by luck or by accident, not by design. Lots of low-income people drive, too.

Correlations aside, road tolls tax usage, not wealth. If we’re taxing an essential service necessary for well-being, which everyone should be able to access regardless of wealth, and if indeed that essential service—mobility—is key to the acquisition and maintenance of wealth, then it should not be taxed based on usage.

A tax or fee on an essential service that is not based on ability to pay is regressive. Period. Mobility is essential in a city. Revenue for the operating and capital costs of transportation infrastructure should come from taxes on wealth.

Keep saying “$2” instead of “$1,000” and you hide the impact of this tax grab. Call it a user fee if you want, I don’t care. For those who have no choice, it doesn’t matter what it’s called.

Those who need to drop off children at daycare or school, get groceries on the way home, or work non-negotiable hours often have no choice but to drive.

A $2 toll is the same as adding a 40-cent gas tax—per litre—for someone who fills their tank each week. Imagine the province telling us they’re raising the price of gas from $1.10 to $1.50/litre. Would city council respond, “Well, rich people drive more”?

Let me make it clear: I have no problem with the City finding a way to tax Toronto residents an additional $1,000 a year, on average. But that’s a big hike and it should be implemented on an ability to pay, not a lottery based on where you happen to live.

But what about transit? Don’t people pay for that mobility? True: adults pay $2.90 per ride, or about $1,500 for a year’s worth of Metropasses, and the TTC is proposing to raise fares again in the new year. Yes, it’s a tax on mobility and fares should be going down, not up.

Remember, though, that driving isn’t actually free. People who take transit instead of driving don’t have maintenance costs, snow tires, insurance, or gas on top of that. My own car insurance is much lower because I use transit to commute.

But, the advocates say, it’s also about mode change: we want people to get out of private vehicles. I’m with them on mode change. I’ve done nothing with this column for the last few months but advocate for people to take transit. The list of reasons to get people out of their cars is long: environmental impact, economic participation, social well-being, better use of city space, better public spaces, improved public safety, and more.

Photo by MarkBeauchamp from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

Traffic on the Gardiner Expressway. Photo by MarkBeauchamp from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

It’s sad to say, but these road tolls will get almost no one to change their mode of transit. It’s not a big enough financial hit, and the transit alternatives to the DVP and Gardiner are busy routes, and many of them are slower.

But all great cities have road tolls! Well, no, they don’t. And what about London’s famous congestion charge?

A road toll is not a congestion charge, but okay, let’s compare them for a moment. What does London do?

London charges a fee to enter a central city zone between 7 a.m. and 6 p.m., Monday to Friday. The charge is about 10 times higher than the proposed toll for the DVP and the Gardiner. That congestion charge initially moved about 20 per cent of peak-hour traffic out of that zone. Some of it went to buses and other mode changes, and some of it shifted to other times of day. But about half of it just went to nearby roads, increasing congestion there. (PDF)

Of the hundreds of thousands of rides in and out of London’s centre, the charge reduced the number of private vehicles by about 20,000 compared to traffic volume when it was introduced in 2003. For a few years, it sped up traffic by a couple miles per hour. It has since slowed again, and city centre congestion is still quite serious and increasing.

So even with London’s much higher user fee, in an area with many more transit alternatives, the congestion charge has had a limited impact on mode change. Mode change is more strongly correlated to transit improvement.

Will the road tolls fight congestion? Fight pollution? No, they won’t. We’ll have more traffic on River Road and Bayview, more traffic on Lakeshore.

This is not a serious plan for either raising revenue or fighting congestion.

If you want to get people to take transit, give commuters a better alternative. Bring in tolls when we dedicate a lane of the DVP for buses only and run express buses down it for TTC fare. Make the car lanes car-pool only. Give that extra speed of a freeway to those who make the effort.

The absence of such elements, plus the uneven impact of road tolls, tells me what Mayor John Tory is proposing is not a plan. It’s a random idea. In the context of a well-thought-out plan, road tolls could be a productive part of a solution. This is not that.

Reward people for making good choices where real choices exist. Don’t punish them for not picking something worse. The goal should be to make public transit more appealing, not to make private transit as difficult as possible.

View of the Gardiner from a GO bus. Photo by MrDanMofo from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

View of the Gardiner from a GO bus. Photo by MrDanMofo from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

And let’s talk about why we want the money. The idea attached to the tail of this road-toll kite is that the revenue will go towards capital costs for roads and transit. These funds would start flowing sometime between 2019 and 2024, depending on who you’re asking.

Capital costs? Roads? Hang on, what are the priorities here? Why isn’t the first priority the 2017 operating budget? We don’t have enough money in the City budget to cover the costs of current services, never mind capital projects several years off.

Why is the mayor planning how to buy a new car next year before he’s figured out how to pay next month’s rent?

We need money for housing. We need money for our strategy to end poverty. We need money for transit.

I want to say another thing very clearly: public infrastructure in this city is in decline. Much of that started before Tory’s time in the mayor’s chair, but it’s on him and the rest of council to do something about it now. Big projects that burn money to serve small numbers of people are not going to do it.

As far as transit is concerned, we cannot continue to neglect the TTC’s state-of-good-repair budget. And we need better service than what we have now. Buses carry more than half of the TTC’s riders every day. If you are lucky enough to be one of those riders, you know that at rush hour, they’re packed.

How about more bus lanes across the city that go faster than the rest of traffic? How about 100 more buses and more express routes that don’t charge an extra fare? (You don’t pay more for an express GO Train, but the TTC inexcusably gouges the riders of the Downtown Express.)

While he’s introducing tolls and talking about burning billions to rebuild the Gardiner, Tory is still asking the TTC to cut its budget.

What kind of city are we building? For whom?

We should be looking to phase out highways within the city, which is something great cities actually do. Good luck getting rid of the Gardiner once it becomes a money-maker.

The mayor is finally taking a “brave stand,” exhausting his political capital on something that does not solve our most urgent financial problem. And he is addressing the city’s revenue problem by taxing an essential service based on usage, not wealth. That creates structural inequality.

City staff identified one source of revenue as the most fair, with the fewest legal obstacles to implement: raise property taxes. Tory insists that is not under consideration, and has gone so far as to pass a motion at executive committee last week specifying which revenue streams could and could not be considered by council.

Road tolls won’t give us the revenue we need any time soon, nor will they address our most pressing operating budget issues, nor improve congestion. They will increase inequality.

The mayor is addressing the wrong problem in the wrong way. That’s not an adult conversation. It’s just big words in a loud voice.