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Trying to understand road pricing

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Last week I had a chance to talk with Marty Collier from Healthy Transport Consulting about the upcoming Transportation Futures: Ontario’s inaugural road pricing forum, and what road pricing will mean for the province.

To a lot of people, the introduction of road pricing might seem like nothing more than a cash-grab, but Transportation Futures aims to show exactly how road pricing works (and the ways it can work in Ontario) as well as showing how the potential benefits might outweigh the costs to drivers. My talk with Marty was not only to find out about the forum, but also to find out more about road pricing to be able to see past the initial shock.

Out of sight out of mind

“Every time I get on transit I’m paying $2.75, but if I have a car and have gas and insurance paid, then it’s free to go on any road. So nobody knows the real price of what that road costs: what does it cost to maintain, what did it cost to build, what it costs to have it plowed in the winter…. All these costs that nobody has a clue [about]. Putting a price on the roads, and not just highways but the local and arterial roads, gives people the idea that this actually costs something and the use of it also costs. It helps people to make more informed choices on how they get around. It doesn’t become this sort of free access people use for shorter trips instead of bikes or transit; it becomes a more level playing field with the other modes.”

What if you can’t afford it?
“Some people may get hit a little more. Some people can barely afford to have a car and if you give them more costs they couldn’t get to work. So you would have to make [the system] so they don’t get hit so hard, so that when they get their bill they get a rebate based on a certain income level. But by the large most people can afford to pay that extra amount.  If people don’t have access to a car right now and they’re lower income folks they’re the ones who will actually benefit most because there will be new money going into the systems they can afford. They might be able to afford a bike, they might be able to afford transit and so if the system is better for them then it’s a much better system than what we have now because people are forced to buy a car to get out to those jobs.”

Where does the money go?
“Right now we don’t really have enough money to have a good, sustainable, and multi-modal transportation network in the GTA or anywhere else in the province. It’s all very car-oriented; we’ve only put our money into one thing. Now we’re in this situation where we don’t have enough money to catch up and build better transit so [road pricing] actually creates a new revenue source so we can create and build those plans we want to make. You could end up designing better roads and ‘complete streets’, where you have the money to create bike lanes or you can change the number of lanes to accommodate transit-only lanes or wider sidewalks. You can start designing better streets if you have more money rather than having little money and just doing the same old same roads [that] only accommodates cars and no one else wants to be there because it’s a bad environment for walking, it’s bad for transit, [and] it’s bad for biking.”

Who would control it?
“I personally don’t think the cities should ever get involved. It should be provincial or like a Metrolinx-type of governance where they are in charge and are doing it across the region. It shouldn’t just be Toronto on its own while Mississauga, Halton, Oshawa and the other regions all have something different, because it wouldn’t be fair. That’s why we’re bringing the Dutch people in because they will be doing all across the country and they’re going to be taking the tax right off the purchase of cars and put it into the roads that the cars use.”

What are the benefits of road pricing?
“Depending on how you use it, you might even get safety benefits because people start getting out of their cars and into other modes. In London, England it has actually decreased the number of crashes that occur because there are less roads. They have this special system called congestion charging which is a certain area of the downtown where people have to pay to get in so not only do people move through there more efficiently and not get caught up in traffic but also [there’s] more people biking and taking different modes so you have less crashes because there are less cars.”

Why have the forum?
“The first and primary goal is just to have a rational discussion about road pricing because most of the facts aren’t out there and people might react to it as they’re being gouged, like it’s just a tax grab, and there is no other reason for road pricing. And the other reason is just to learn how other countries and cities have dealt with road pricing and implementation, and how they failed.  [The forum is] to learn from [the international speakers] and have a brief discussion of the Canadian systems as well because we should talk about the 407 and the Golden Ears bridge in B.C. and then we’ll just have an assessment on what are issues, what are the benefits, what are the costs then we’ll see what the next steps are.”

Transportation Futures: Ontario’s inaugural road pricing forum is taking place at the Intercontinental Hotel Toronto-Yorkville on Thursday, November 13.  For more information, go to and keep an eye out for the upcoming Spacing events guide.

photo by Colin



  1. The roads aren’t free. They’re paid for by public taxes because they’re a public good. Not everyone personally drives on roads or highways, but the goods they purchase do.

    With how transit exists in the GTA right now, enacting a road toll is nothing more than a money grab – real alternatives do not exist but for a handful of people, and what alternatives there already are are nearly at capacity.

  2. Putting a price on roads through congestion pricing is complex, and would involve an entirely new (and potentially unwieldy – think what a drag 407 is and multiply by 100) bureaucracy.

    But we can easily adequately charge for car use by simply increasing the cost of parking – which is otherwise vastly subsidized to our detriment.

  3. Lillian Mountweazel: I know that’s your knee jerk reaction, but did you even read the bloody article?

    I think road pricing is struggling to even get to the concept stage in North America, would be interested to learn how the plan is carried out in Europe.

  4. Of course I read the ‘bloody article’. It didn’t raise any new points, either. It just frames the debate in the usual way – and ignores that people with cars are already paying extra taxes related to their road use: from parking, to gas taxes (which is a double-tax, as you pay sales tax on top of the gas tax), to fees for licenses and vehicle registration.

    Where is all this money going? Wouldn’t the first call to arms be to ensure that the money already collected is being used for something other than general tax revenue?

    It isn’t as if your $2.75 for public transit is paying the full cost either. That’s how our society works; we collectively pay for things that perform a public good: like public transit, roads, highways, healthcare.

  5. Just sell of the highways… Ontario could make hundreds of billions by selling off the 400 series highways (and Toronto could mint a pretty coin with the DVP/Gard/Allen). Private roads would reduce congestion and benefit the people that actually need the roads.

    (and if you aren’t willing to pay a 407 style toll, you clearly don’t need it).

  6. The notion that people are unaware of cost is insulting. I would wager that motorist are more keenly aware of costs than cyclists in the bike lanes.

  7. Another comment from Angry Glen that I’ll ignore until he provides some context to his statement.

  8. I’d assume that cyclists and pedestrians would end up having to pay the same road pricing since they’re using the bike lanes and crossing the roads?

  9. Trent: no, since bike and pedestrian usage do not damage the road (and environment) at the same scale. And this is about highways, not roads (unless is a congestion charge). So your point is misguided at best.

  10. Don’t drivers already pay for this through the excise tax on gasoline?

  11. Before the Harris gov, taxes collected for licenses and vehicle registration went right back into the Ministry of Transportation. Since then, the money now goes into one big pot and the government decides how to spend it. Same goes for gas tax, I believe.

  12. The three issues that road pricing seeks to address can be tackled in other, more logical, ways.

    1) Cost of highways and maintenance. Additional taxes are already being extracted from drivers but is used for general tax revenue, rather than going back into infrastructure. In the same way it seems unfair for everyone to pay for roads and highways, it’s unfair for drivers to pay through the nose for unrelated uses (and then be accused of not paying for highways and roads)

    2) Pollution. Our governments have been criminally lazy in not legislating stricter environmental controls. Had money been earmarked for renewable energy sources decades ago, we wouldn’t be in the same pickle we are now. Cars aren’t the problem; their internal combustion engines are.

    3) Congestion. The car is the favourite mode of transport in the GTA because the alternatives aren’t efficient. Our public transit favours travel in only one major direction: into downtown. That ignores the reality that many people now live downtown, but work in the 905. Or live in the 905, and work elsewhere in the 905. Or hell, work and live in an area of the 416 that’s underserved. We should be pressuring our Federal and Provincial governments to increase public transit spending, but that spending should be shouldered by all of us – rather than foisted on an unfavourable group who’s perceived to have extra money.

  13. Road construction/maintenance cost more than the amount of tax collected through gas taxes. But beyond the costs, the road system cannot handle the amount of traffic that naturally occurs when there aren’t incentives for people to consider alternatives. Road pricing will benefit drivers by reducing congestion so that they can drive on “express”ways rather than virtual parking lots. Too many people don’t consider car pooling, public transportation or finding a home/job within a reasonable commuting distance because there aren’t appropriate incentives for them to do so. The result, people like myself who have consciously minimized our vehicle use are left subsidizing those who don’t. And I haven’t even started about the environmental benefits of road pricing ……..

  14. “The roads aren’t free. They’re paid for by public taxes because they’re a public good. Not everyone personally drives on roads or highways, but the goods they purchase do.”

    A lot of people just refer to goods they like as “public goods” when they are nothing of the sort. A “public good” is not something that is beneficial to society. It is something which, by it’s nature, can only be provided by the public (via the government). National defense is a public good. A public good is both non-excludable and non-rivalrous.

    By non excludable, it is a good which you cannot realistically control access of. Logistically, it would be impossible to exclude someone from the sidewalk, a local road or from police protection. As there is no possible way for a market to exist for these goods and services, they have to provided by the public.

    Non-rivaled goods imply that one persons use of the good doesn’t prevent another from using it. My being protected my the police or fire department doesn’t prevent someone from also being protected.

    A highway is neither of these, it can be both excludable (with it’s convenient on/off ramps) and one person’s use of road space prohibits someone else’s use of road space. Therefore, it is not a public good.

  15. Will, I do you not think that your interpretation of highways not being public good, is a little contrived?

    I could just as easily apply such natural, or self limiting, restrictions on any service. Libraries fail your test because if a book I want to borrow has been borrowed by some one else I have been excluded from equal use of the same public property. While I don’t agree with your interpretation, as you can see the application of such logic makes any finite resource provided by the state as prohibitive and or exclusionary.

  16. From the article:

    “Every time I get on transit I’m paying $2.75, but if I have a car and have gas and insurance paid, then it’s free to go on any road…”


    Drivers pay enormous amounts in taxes, fees and levies — far above and beyond those paid by non-drivers — to build and maintain those roads! Unfortunately, the many levels of government that collect that money only spend a fraction of it on its intended uses.

    “…So nobody knows the real price of what that road costs”

    And fools like the author don’t know the real cost to drivers to be on that road (not to mention the real cost passed on to non-drivers whose goods and services are delivered via those roads).

    1. Road tolls are a tax on EVERYTHING.

    2. The ONLY reason most drivers still drive is because there is no transit alternative. You’re suggesting that we punish those people (further) for going to work or to school by the only means available to them. Shame!

  17. Lillian does have a point – where is existing tax money going?

    Doesn’t anyone remember the cities agitating to get a piece of gax taxes collected in their cities earmarked for roadwork in their area?

    I don’t view it as a bad thing though – renovating our transportation systems is clearly needed, and is also clearly expensive. The hard part isn’t dreaming up where bike corridors could be, or where the next streetcar line could go, the hard part is actually paying for it.

    The argument that there are nothing should be done until alternatives are available is crazy.

  18. Diane: You misunderstand the context of the quote. He meant that, unlike transit, you don’t need to pay upfront to use the roads and since it is not a conscious thought like “the subway ride home tonight is going to cost me $2.75” it can become a lot easier to lose track on how much you actually are paying in taxes and such.

  19. “Will, I do you not think that your interpretation of highways not being public good, is a little contrived?

    I could just as easily apply such natural, or self limiting, restrictions on any service. Libraries fail your test because if a book I want to borrow has been borrowed by some one else I have been excluded from equal use of the same public property”

    Libraries aren’t a public good… Never meant to suggest they were. 9/10 things that are provided by the government aren’t actually “public goods.”

  20. Wait, so this is just about the assumption that drivers aren’t conscious of the extra taxes and fees they’re paying to use their cars, and by extension use highways?

    With gas prices rising (and now hopefully falling a bit), with insurance rates what they are, and with the addition of more bureaucratic red tape; drivers are very much aware of how much extra they’re laying out to take the car, rather than transit.

    But, if the concern is still there, maybe the cheapest solution would be some signs at highway on-ramps: “ATTENTION DRIVERS: YOU PAID FOR THIS HIGHWAY WITH YOUR TAXES” Then you can rest smugly assured that no one thinks of the highways as free.

  21. “Libraries aren’t a public good” ? What? Would society be better off without Libraries?

  22. Personally, I thing the idea of road tolls an excellent one.
    Why Canadians resist them is beyond me.
    Most of the major state highways in Maine, as an example, use tolls every, let’s say 150 km since I can’t remember the exact figure at the moment.
    They have emergency phones set up a specific distance jic of of an accident, they have reflective barriers so idiots won’t miss a turn, proper rest areas, and the roads themselves are well maintained.
    Why is this such a difficult issue?

  23. “Every time I get on transit I’m paying $2.75, but if I have a car and have gas and insurance paid, then it’s free to go on any road. So nobody knows the real price of what that road costs: what does it cost to maintain, what did it cost to build, what it costs to have it plowed in the winter….

    Everyone except for me. It cost exactly $2.75. Regardless of how far I travel or by which mode I use or if the roads needed to be maintained or cleaned.

  24. “He meant that, unlike transit, you don’t need to pay upfront to use the roads and since it is not a conscious thought like “the subway ride home tonight is going to cost me $2.75″ it can become a lot easier to lose track on how much you actually are paying in taxes and such.”

    I’m certain drivers are reminded frequently of how much extra they’re paying for the basic necessity of getting around.

    They see it every time they fill up at the pump. (Petro Canada pumps even have stickers telling them how much of the price is added taxes.)

    They see it every time they pay an insurance premium.

    They see it every time they renew their licenses.

    They see it every time they renew their plates.

    They see it ever time they pay for their emission testing.

    They see it every time they change their tires. (Did you even know there are special taxes on automobile tires?)

    They see it every time they pay for “public” parking.

    They see it every time they get a ticket for parking when there’s inadequate “public” parking.

    What they DON’T see is all that money going into making the roads safer and suited to the needs of traffic.

    And what they DON’T see is all that money going into public transit they can use too.

    And you probably think “highway robbery” is just a saying.

  25. Diane

    And no where in your comment is there a cost associated with the environment (emmisions testing is equal across the board no matter if you’re a Prius or SUV).

    And that’s my rub.

  26. Actually, Sonia, you pay an additional tax if your vehicle is considered a gas guzzler 🙂

    Plus all the extra taxes you’d be paying to keep that guzzler running; a gas tax is a pretty fair way to tax based on actual usage.

  27. The notion that the TTC fair is an upfront cost to road use is ridiculous when it does not even cover the operating cost of the service. Let alone the capital cost. The 2.75 is miles away from paying for anything related to road construction and maintenance.

    Sonai, the cost is in the same place as that of public transit when off peak hours on a substantial number of routes make it less energy efficient than the average private vehicle.

  28. Lillian, Diane, etc., you are simply missing the point. Regardless of what other costs you have paid up front to operate your vehicle, fair or otherwise, fact is, once you decide to actually go out on the roads, it doesn’t cost you any more than it costs anyone else to drive on them – everyone in a vehicle is paying the same marginal price (i.e., nothing) to consume limited space on the roads. And if it happens to be rush hour in, for example, Toronto, congestion is the inevitable result. Road pricing is the only way to solve the problem of congestion. I can appreciate that you may not care about congestion, but there are definite costs associated with it. And maybe you prefer to pay extra up front for some hypothetical vehicle that pollutes less while sitting in traffic going nowhere, but for those whose time is actually worth something, road pricing would provide a very calculable benefit.

  29. So the highways should be prioritized for “people whose time is actually worth something”? How egalitarian.

    GDH, it’s you who’s missing the point: just because there isn’t a specific fee that’s paid before the key is turned, or your wheels touch pavement on the highway, doesn’t mean there isn’t a cost associated with both, and certainly doesn’t mean that drivers aren’t aware of that cost.

    The more you drive, the more you pay. It’s already a fair system.

  30. GDH, as Lillian and Diane have explained, which you seem to be ignoring, is that gas taxes already account for this and more. Efficiency is rewarded. By accounting for vehicular efficiency and traffic efficiency (congestion). Congestion charges are only one dimensional. They would charge the same for a Hummer as a Prius. Again compare what you are proposing to our public transit system. Going one stop or across the city is the same cost. No marginality at all.

  31. Nice try Diane. Add hospital and policing costs from driving to the equation and your shopping list comes up quite short. Oh and dont leave out all the costs equated with sprawl and damage to the environment.

    Road pricing I might add, here on the feely feely Spacing site, is Capitalism at its best. A rare moment when different parts of the spectrum can agree.

  32. “Egalitarian” “It’s already a fair system” – egalitarianism and fairness simply don’t enter into it. Space on roads is a scarce good; setting market prices for that good is simply the best way to allocate it.

    Glen, longer transit trips should cost more than shorter ones. We shouldn’t be subsidizing sprawl by building subway lines to the suburbs any more than by building freeways there. The extension of the Spadina line to Vaughan is a ridiculous waste, for example; the single fare system just makes it worse.

  33. “Space on roads is a scarce good; setting market prices for that good is simply the best way to allocate it.”

    Space on roads is a component of mobility. Mobility is a necessity, not a discretionary purchase.

    Would you also suggest that because Emergency rooms are crowded people should pay for tickets to get in? Or that because classrooms are crowded parents should pay by the hour for the time their children spend in school? Would you raise food prices to reduce checkout lines at the grocery store?

    (Actually, these analogies understate the problem with your reasoning. As I pointed out earlier, an added tax on road use is an added cost for every good and service that is delivered or accessed over those roads — effectively including health care, education and food.)

  34. scott d,

    I don’t think that it is a matter of agreement. It is opportunism. Some here agree with free market principles only when it suites them, yet conveniently ignore them when they do not work in their favour. Hardly consensus.

  35. Diane, you completely discount the benefits that would accrue from reducing congestion. The “added tax” would be more than worthwhile for some; others would change their behavior to do their business during off-peak hours. That’s the whole point of the exercise. I can appreciate you not wanting to pay more to use your car, but claiming road pricing only has costs is simply incorrect.

    We have enough road capacity. Road pricing would simply allow us to allocate that capacity somewhat efficiently.

  36. Road pricing allows those that can afford it to go about their business, while everyone else must change their habits. Seems a smug way to plan a city.

  37. Surely you mean “smog” not “smug”. (insert lame laughter here)

    I’m not sure why there is such disdain for road pricing: the examples from all over the world have consistently shown the benefits outweigh the negatives. Stockholm, with less people than Toronto, has successfully implemented congestion charges even after it was negatively received. Its implementation was confirmed by a referendum (55%-45% victory, if I remember).

    The real key is to make sure the funds from road pricing HAVE TO GO INTO SUSTAINABLE TRANSIT PROGRAMS and PROJECTS. Otherwise people like Lillian will continue to gripe that its a cash grab because on the surface it can certainly look like that.

    I think road pricing is a no-brainer because of the enviro impact vehicles have on our air quality. Maintaining roads is so much more expensive nowadays that we will have no choice but to implement road pricing. Its best to have this discussion — with the variety of dissenting voices seen here on this posting — so that myths and misconceptions can be dispelled or proven correct.

  38. Sonia, why would that money be correctly allocated back into transportation when the billions of dollars of driving related taxes and fees already collected aren’t?

    The no-brainer is in not thinking about the funds already extracted, and just assuming that there’s still something extra to be justifiably grabbed.

  39. Because the “driving related fees” are put into the provinces budget and then reallocated throughout the budget. Taxes for driving fees do not go towards roads or transit (like they did preHarris days).

    You make it seem like there is other money already in the pot that can pay for our infrastructure deficit: there isn’t, and unless there is some magic way to repair our roads, build infrastructure for the future (including more transit lines and bike networks) than road pricing is the best way to do it.

    You obviously don’t like the idea of paying for something that you get for relatively cheap. You might not think driving costs are cheap, but when you look at the expenses (and damage), drivers are getting off easy. The decision to live and work in less dense areas is one you make and one you should have to pay for.

  40. There’s no money already in the pot for this? $6,000,000,000 a year in gas taxes is nothing to sniff at, and that doesn’t take into consideration the extra GST/PST paid on that tax, nor the other various sundry taxes and fees paid by drivers.

    You obviously don’t like the fact that I already pay to drive, you’d rather I pay even more so you don’t have to open your wallet at all – imagine that.

  41. $6,000,000,000 is already collected. That’s not a small amount, and that’s JUST from the gas tax – it doesn’t include the GST/PST paid on the gas tax, nor other fees and taxes that drivers incur.

    You obviously don’t think I’m paying enough, even without understanding what I’m already paying. That doesn’t seem like a strong position.

  42. GDH, you mistakenly believe that this added tax would reduce congestion. That’s demonstrably untrue.

    Remember when the Toronto bypass Highway 407 was sold out to foreign private concerns? It’s now FULL of traffic despite being the most expensive toll road in the world.

    It turns out people who need to travel between work, school and home simply must continue to drive when there is no practical alternative. Adding a per-kilometer road tax will not change that one bit.

    And while the proposed added tax will increase government coffers, history tells us that little or no money will flow out of those coffers and into alternatives like ubiquitous public transit. It never happened with the billions in driver-paid taxes already collected; it’s not going to happen with the next billions.

    “I can appreciate you not wanting to pay more to use your car…”

    I use public transit. I am one of the fortunate few who can.

  43. Where, as a society, have we collectively decided that living in a 400 sq ft box in a 50 story building, on a street that looks like a tunnel, then get squished into a shaking, rattling aluminum can to go to our cubicle in another 50 story building and then home again, is Life? Is that what a million years of evolution, all the wars and deaths, all the science and progress has been for – so we can live in a dirty, over-crowded city?
    ‘Suburban sprawl,’ ‘free roads,’ ‘car,’ ‘motorist:’ are these the 4-letter words of the 21st Century?
    Do you want to raise your kids in a 400 sq ft box, like they do in HK and other cities, or do you want to raise them with a backyard, swings and a dog? Should people have the choice of driving to a park for a picnic, or sandwiching the family and kids into a tiny streetcar? We live in the 2nd largest country in the world, with one of the lowest population densities this side of the Sahara Desert – why are we bickering and bitching about how other people should live or get to work?
    Nothing is free – as educated adults, I think we all understand that. What we, has a society, have to collectively agree to is what we, as a society, are willing to pay for – or not. That includes everything – from healthcare, to libraries, to roads.
    Free roads and the automotive culture are merely the latest flashpoint. We can coach our attacks in cute neo-environmental catch-phrases, we can villify those who have the money or (gasp!) actually like to drive, but the bottom line is that if we aspire to better our lives and to improve the human condition, I don’t see how any intelligent being can argue that walking 20 blocks in January, or shivering while waiting 10 minutes for a streetcar, or being jammed into the subway EVERY day for the rest of our adults lives is something to hope for.
    We need to make our lives better, not worse. We need to re-allocate wasted resources (and there are plenty) to improve all forms of transportation, to accomodate everyone’s ‘choices,’ whether that is a 400 sq ft box in the sky, or a back yard in Pickering.
    Isn’t it odd, that 35 years ago, there was all this money for infrastructure – and now it’s not there?