How to unclog holiday highways: toll them

Printer-friendly version
Appeared in the Calgary Herald

As Canadians enjoy the May long weekend and look ahead to summer vacations, many will obviously use their car, truck or SUV to get to their favourite vacation spot. Unfortunately, they will also have to contemplate driving on highways built decades ago and for many fewer automobiles than traverse our nation’s highways today.

In recent weeks, Western Canadians in particular have seen front-page stories about traffic deaths on major highways. The first was the recent late-April accident when seven people died on the mostly two-lane Highway 63 that connects Fort McMurray to central Alberta; the second was the mid-May misfortune on the mostly two-lane Trans-Canada highway near Golden, British Columbia, which claimed the life of a Calgary woman. And drivers across Canada can likely think of dangerous patches of blacktop in their locale.

I’ve never driven the Fort McMurray highway—it’s a five-hour long drive and for many is a regular commute— but I am well familiar with the TransCanada highway through British Columbia. Both suffer from the same problem: with rare exception and a few improvements in recent years, both are mostly two-laned with unique reasons why that’s a problem: the Fort McMurray highway is the main artery to oil sands, including all the industrial traffic that implies; the TransCanada is in the middle of some of the continent’s steepest peaks and in winter, in the path of danger. In the winter of 2011, 35 avalanches in a few days necessitated the temporary closure of that highway until the avalanche danger passed.

In the latter case, add a 1950s design and there is a crying need for a serious comprehensive upgrade a la Switzerland. For example, the Swiss highway system uses tunnels much more extensively than does Canada, despite the obvious need in a province such as British Columbia.

While some might be tempted to lecture drivers to slow down on such roads—a reasonable request—the reality is that on a five, seven or 10-hour drive, people will occasionally want to pass others on the road. This is especially so on holiday weekends and in summer when traffic volumes are immense, but it’s an iffy proposition on a narrow-two laned road system.

The recent accidents have renewed calls for twinning both highways as soon as possible. That’s a good idea, but cash-strapped governments will always have competing priorities, so here’s a useful option: toll those two highways (and others in need of major upgrades) and use the money for road renewal.

Tolls are not unfamiliar ways to finance highway or improvements to the same. They are widely used in Europe; here in Canada, Toronto was able to build the 407 ETR (Express Toll Route) through a public-private partnership and applied tolls to make it work.

In British Columbia’s interior, the four-lane Coquihalla highway (with starting points in Kamloops and Kelowna and which intersects the TransCanada in the Fraser Valley) was financed for nearly two decades with tolls.

Granted, tolls are not popular. If they appear too frequently, people feel like they are being nickel and dimed. Also, when ubiquitous, they can be a hindrance to economic development. The historian Will Durant, in his survey of medieval Europe, noted how a plethora of tolls and tariffs clogged up commerce. Their later abolishment by Europe’s rulers helped the continent restore its economic fortunes. But there’s no need or call for a toll both every 20 kilometres in every Canadian hamlet along a highway. Fact is, a few tolls on at least major routes would greatly improve a ratty system of in-province and intra-province roads.

Some might object and argue we already pay such tolls: they’re called gasoline taxes. True, and gas taxes are another form of user-pay, but dedicated user-pay highways make sense as they directly link usage of a highway with its specific upkeep and expansion: Those who travel frequently pay more for road construction and upkeep; so too out-of-country tourists who otherwise wouldn't contribute to our nation's infrastructure beyond gas taxes. It is also environmentally friendly to have drivers who use roads the most pay the most.

In general, are Canada’s highways overdue for such improvements? Absolutely.

To reference the most well-known example again, the Canadian Encyclopedia notes that agitation for a national automotive artery began in 1910. However, it took until 1962 when Highway 1—the TransCanada, was formally opened at the Rogers Pass. That was 50 years ago and improvements have been few and slow in coming ever since. Whether on the TransCanada or on other major arteries, our highways should match our driving needs and modern traffic flows. Tolls would help accomplish such an end.

Subscribe to the Fraser Institute

Get the latest news from the Fraser Institute on the latest research studies, news and events.