Road tolls are one of the oldest and most common forms of paying for transportation infrastructure — they go back millenia, and although they are not common in Canada they are common in the United States and Europe on expressways, bridges and tunnels.
If Metrolinx were to use them to pay for transit funding, it would take the form of adding tolls to the 400-series highways across the GTHA and their city-owned extensions, the Don Valley Parkway, the Gardiner Expressway, and presumably Allen Road.
(Note that tolls are distinct from a congestion charge, which is charged on all vehicles using any road in a certain area of the city. The complication for the GTHA is that congestion is just as bad across the entire City of Toronto as it is downtown. I’ll look at congestion charges briefly in a later post).
The CivicAction report (PDF) estimates that a 10 cents/km toll on GTHA highways would raise $1 billion a year. Tolls could also vary by time of day.
This rate would be significantly lower than the tolls on the private 407 highway.
Another possibility would be a fixed-cost charge to access these highways. That would discourage short-distance uses, focusing use on longer-distance trips. A fixed cost could be, for example, tied to the average cost of a single transit fare in the GTHA.
Cost to implement
Adding a toll system to an existing highway system would require significant initial costs to set up, and also ongoing costs for maintenance and enforcement.
Depending on the technology used, it might also impose additional initial costs on drivers to purchase a transponder.
The logic of tolling expressways is that they are a valuable good currently offered for free, which means they are massively over-used and therefore so congested that they often do not fulfill their purpose of providing rapid vehicle travel routes through the GTA.
Adding a toll would, in theory, encourage drivers who could alternatively use transit to make that choice instead, reducing congestion.
Varying the toll by time of day might also encourage drivers who have some flexibility to use the highways at less congested times, which would even out the use of this infrastructure. In this case the behaviour change would be targeted to address “hot spots” of congestion.
The problem is that, currently, many of the transit alternatives to expressways (GO trains, the Yonge subway line) are already used at full capacity during peak times. So the potential for positive behaviour change is limited until transit capacity is increased.
Another argument against tolls is that they will push traffic onto local roads. However, for that to be the case, there has to be a reasonably fast local road alternative. Lake Shore provides such an alternative for part of the Gardiner, but it does not have a lot of impact on residential areas where they run parallel. It is also already quite congested. Bayview provides such an alternative for the DVP, and would likely become more congested. The alternatives to the 401 are already very congested during rush hour. In each case, a driver would pay a significant time penalty. (This problem would likely be worse with a fixed-rate toll that encouraged shorter trips to use local roads).
A final behaviour concern that is often expressed is that people will be discouraged from coming into the centre of the city if they have to pay tolls on the main access routes. Putting tolls on highways across the GTHA may mitigate this concern somewhat. Consider, as well, that the majority of people who go to the centre of the city for work or pleasure take transit (TTC or GO), and to do so they already have to pay a fee. Drivers are currently the outlier in getting a free ride into the downtown. It is true that they have to pay parking (except where their employer provides it or they take the time to find a side street), but storing their vehicle is a different issue and reflects a separate set of costs from road use.
For reasons both rational and emotional, the idea of tolling highways in the GTHA provokes very strong resistance.
Part of the cause may be that the costs are immediately visible rather than being buried in existing costs. The fact that Canadians are not all that familiar with tolls may also play a role, as well as the fact that they will be imposed on a service that was formerly free (tolls on new infrastructure get less resistance).
Compared to the alternatives, tolls also constitute a larger cost imposition on a smaller number of people (those who use highways daily), which creates stronger and more focused resistance.
Resistance would also be likely from neighbourhoods where spillover from expressways is likely, such as along Bayview.
Tolls and congestion charges have been successful where they have clearly reduced congestion, giving the drivers who do pay a better and faster trip in exchange for the greater cost. However, it is not clear that tolling highways in the GTHA would make all that much difference to how fast they operate, since there is not a lot of capacity for people to switch to transit on these routes. Time-based charges might smooth out highway usage slightly, but possibly not enough to make a visible difference.
Given these conditions, tolling GTHA highways might be more politically viable after significant transit alternatives that specifically parallel highways have been built.
What do our readers think of this option? What are other issues, positive or negative, with highway tolls?
Tune in on Monday for the Regional Gas Tax.