Highway robbery: the case against toll roads

The argument in favour of tolls in Toronto fails on several levels, even for those whose fiscal persuasion is conservative

toll roadsTORONTO, Ont. Jan. 3, 2017/ Troy Media/ – Toll roads have existed since ancient times. But charging fees for using public or private roadways still causes consternation.

Toronto Mayor John Tory recently announced his support for a $2 road toll on two city highways, the Gardiner Expressway and Don Valley Parkway. This would raise funds toward fulfilling his 2014 election campaign promise of building more public transit.

After a contentious debate, city councillors voted 32 to 9 to explore tolls. The tolls would raise an estimated $200 million a year.

But while it sounds promising, it could take until 2019 (or beyond) to get proper infrastructure in place.

This was quite the policy switch for Tory. During his failed 2003 Toronto mayoralty campaign, he called eventual winner David Miller’s suggestion that he would consider road tolls – for the same two highways – something akin to “highway robbery.” 

Many people agreed with his analysis. I was one of them and I still feel the same way.

Wouldn’t an individual who has supported various user-based fee models (medical savings accounts, school vouchers, tuition tax credits) naturally favour toll roads? As Newstalk 1010 radio host John Moore wrote in a Feb. 5, 2013, National Post column, “Road tolls aren’t a liberal shakedown, they are a common-sense conservative means of charging users the real cost of a government service.”

Well, not necessarily.

The Canadian conservative movement is massively split on this issue. Right-leaning think-tanks like the Fraser Institute and C.D. Howe Institute have made cases in support of tolls. Alas, there’s a line between economic consistency and political objectivity for the many vehicles driving on the right’s intellectual highway.

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Tolls on private roads are often viewed as an acceptable free market-oriented principle. Drivers can pay additional fees to use this service or they can stay on the roads that are paid for with their tax dollars. The choice is left to the consumer.

Tolls on public roads and highways are often viewed as optional and unnecessary additional taxes. We pay (and waste) more than enough money on public services, including city roads. So adopting another way to add tax dollars to the already-bloated government coffers is illogical and ineffective.

One of Tory’s main arguments for toll roads is also distinctly anti-conservative: to ensure that people outside of Toronto pay their fair share. “These tolls would be paid by those who drive in and out of our city as well as by local … residents,” he told the Toronto Region Board of Trade last November, “sharing the burden among everyone who uses these city-owned and financed roads.”

Let’s break this down. Non-local residents would pay the $2 fee for using the Gardiner Expressway and Don Valley Parkway. Meanwhile, local residents, who make up the majority of drivers on these two public highways, would have to pay this fee on top of their costly municipal taxes.

A tax on top of a tax is a selling point for a toll road? You have to be kidding me.

Toll roads would also push more vehicles on the “free” city streets. This would create more gridlock and frustration for drivers, and increase the overall cost to taxpayers to repair and maintain city roads and highways. Tory’s multibillion-dollar SmartTrack proposal, which is supposed to increase public transit options and alleviate this type of congestion, won’t be completed until (at least) 2026 – and its overall impact remains a question mark.

To paraphrase an old saying, not all user fee models are created equal. In the case of toll roads, the negatives far outweigh the positives. No fiscally-conservative or rational-thinking person should ever support this “highway robbery.”

Troy Media columnist and political commentator Michael Taube was a speechwriter for former prime minister Stephen Harper. Michael is also included in Troy Media’s Unlimited Access subscription plan.

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