Toronto needs road tolls to tame gridlock

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Appeared in the Toronto Sun, December 10, 2016

Toronto Mayor John Tory wants to introduce road tolls on the Don Valley Parkway and the Gardiner Expressway. As is often the case, tolling opponents portray tolling proposals as yet another tax grab by the government. 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 per year. Those costs include reducing people’s employment options, delaying deliveries, increasing vehicle emissions, and so forth. Individually, those costs are small, but in aggregate they lead to gridlock that slows the region’s entire economy.

Toronto should get serious about pricing 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 become 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 Mayor Tory’s proposal regrettably feeds into the “it’s a tax” narrative. The proposed toll appears to be a flat toll rather than a dynamic toll that adjusts with demand levels or time of day. This will reduce the toll’s effectiveness. In addition to the adaptive behaviours discussed above, 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. Since the city will receive an influx of revenue from the tolls, it could help address these concerns by reducing other fees or lowering 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. But regardless of whether one approves of how the revenue will be used, road tolls are essential to ease the gridlock that threatens to strangle Toronto’s economy.

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.

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