Saturday, September 07, 2019

Does Toronto/Canada need more toll roads? Maybe

An article in today's paper has resurrected an argument that surfaces from time to time in Canada, usually with little or no traction: the issue of whether or not toll roads are a "good thing".
Historically, the idea has been frowned upon in Canada, and we currently have just two toll roads (not counting several bridges and tunnels across the US border), the 407 around Toronto, Ontario, and the Cobequid Pass in Nova Scotia, both of them relatively short. Toronto probably needs a congestion change along the lines of London, Singapore or Stockholm, but the chances of that happening are very slim, and both the previous Liberal premier of Ontario and the current Conservative one have definitively ruled out such an eventuality, is considered downright "un-Canadian".
But is it? Toll roads can be a good way to raise money for infrastructure and public transit projects, and they can help regulate the transportation grid, reduce the demand for new roads, ease congestion, curb carbon emissions, and make for a quicker and less stressful commute. What's not to like? The old complaint that tolls are too difficult and expensive to collect no longer applies in this age of technology, and electronic transponders and licence-plate imaging has made such arguments redundant.
That said, the 407 is over 20 years old now, and I have still never used it, preferring to slog along the old congested 401 instead of paying out some money for an easier ride. It is partly that shock of confronting, in terms of hard dollars and cents, the effects of one's transportation choices that is both the main drawback, but also, arguably, the whole point, of toll roads and congestion charges. If I had to pay each time I used the short section of the Gardiner Expressway that I take to drive downtown, I'm pretty sure I would use public transit more often, rather than, as now, sometimes driving and sometimes taking the streetcar, i.e. it would work, it would have its desired effect. And, if the tolls were put straight back into extending and improving public transit, then I would be even more likely to use said transit.
Also I don't buy the argument that we already pay enough in gas and vehicle ownership taxes and fees. Clearly we don't, because out transportation system remains broken - one recent study fingers Toronto as the worst commute in North America, and the sixth worst in the world (after Rio, Bogota, Sao Paolo, Istanbul and Salvador), at least among the 74 cities selected for the study. Another study puts Toronto at 20th out of 220 worldwide, with only Boston and Washington DC showing as North American cities with a worse congestion problem.
Not good. So, maybe we need to try something different. Maybe tolls.

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