By Steve Lafleur
and Ken Green
The Fraser Institute
Road tolls are essential to ease the gridlock that threatens to strangle Toronto’s economy.
Toronto Mayor John Tory wants to introduce road tolls on the Don Valley Parkway and the Gardiner Expressway, and city council has endorsed the move. The provincial government must now approve the tolls before they can be implemented.
As is often the case, tolling opponents portray the proposal as a tax grab by city. We hear the refrain that taxpayers already paid for the roads, and pay to maintain them through fuel taxes and licensing fees.
But regardless of whether motorists already cover construction and maintenance costs, there’s another cost they aren’t paying for – traffic congestion.
Worsening traffic in the Greater Toronto Area costs the economy billions of dollars a year. Those costs include reducing people’s employment options, delaying deliveries and increasing vehicle emissions.
Individually, those costs are small. But in aggregate, they lead to gridlock that slows the region’s entire economy.
Toronto should get serious about putting a price on congestion. Tolling congested highways is a good start, since it nudges people towards avoiding congested areas during rush hour.
Not all people can change their travel patterns, but some can. Some motorists will find alternative pathways that reduce congestion on primary arteries. Others might carpool to split the cost of the toll. Employers might accelerate the trend towards more flexible office hours and telecommuting. And, over time, people might be more likely to live closer to their places of work.
At the margins, those decisions would help unclog Toronto’s bursting traffic arteries.
While tolling is often portrayed as unfair, in reality we use tolls to ration scarce resources of many sorts. The same principle applies to hockey tickets or air travel. No one would argue that hockey tickets should be free because taxpayers already helped pay for the venue. The tickets ration space.
One aspect of Tory’s proposal regrettably feeds into the “it’s a tax” narrative. The proposal appears to be for a flat toll rather than a dynamic toll that adjusts with demand levels or time of day. This will reduce the toll’s effectiveness.
Time-of-day or congestion-based tolls add a strong incentive for people to spread out the peak and travel a bit earlier or a bit later than usual. A flat toll offers no incentive to do the latter. This is a critical flaw the city should address.
There has also been some justifiable concern about the impact on low-income motorists. The city could help them by using the increased revenue from the tolls to reduce other fees or lower property taxes.
Instead, it plans to use the revenue to fund public transportation expansions, which won’t necessarily do much to help low-income drivers.
It’s understandable that people are upset that they might have to pay more to drive. After all, they already pay for roads in many ways.
But the unfortunate reality is that many people want to use the same roads at the same time, and that’s contributing to tremendous gridlock in the city.
Putting a price on traffic congestion is a crucial step to improving the flow of traffic and quality of life in Toronto.
Steve Lafleur and Ken Green are analysts at the Fraser Institute.