Help Toronto taxpayers—toll the roads

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Appeared in the Toronto Sun, August 14, 2019
Help Toronto taxpayers—toll the roads

Toronto’s municipally-owned highways are known for heavy congestion. So much so that the Don Valley Parkway is frequently referred to as the Don Valley Parking Lot, costing the region between $6 billion and $11 billion annually. Moreover, because of the way municipal roads are funded, Toronto residents foot the bill for these highways—whether they use them or not.

There is a simple solution to address both of those issues: road tolls. Unfortunately, while elected officials in Toronto introduced tolls on the Gardiner Expressway and Don Valley Parkway, they were overridden by Queen’s Park.

Again, the Gardiner and DVP are municipally-owned and maintained, unlike the 400 series highways. This, along with the TTC, help explain why Toronto spends the most (per person) on transportation of any city in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area.

Why so expensive? Because Toronto’s transit and expressways don’t just serve Torontonians, but play an important role in the entire region’s transportation network. In fact, the TTC provides around 85 per cent of local transit rides in the GTA, and according to Toronto Mayor John Tory, approximately 40 per cent of DVP and Gardiner users come from outside Toronto.

Relatively high spending on transportation infrastructure isn’t necessarily bad, so long as the costs are recovered from users. On this front, the TTC does comparatively well, recovering more revenue from the fare box than most other large North American transit systems. In short, TTC commuters contribute directly to the transit service’s operating budget. The same cannot be said about Toronto’s expressways, which are paid for by local taxpayers, rather than directly by drivers. While transit fares and road tolls may seem like an extra “tax,” the alternative for the city is funding transportation through property taxes and other user fees.

City hall appears to be well aware of this conundrum. After years of debating the fate of Toronto’s ageing highway infrastructure, council decided in 2016 to explore tolls starting in 2019. Depending on its implementation, such an approach could ensure users—not property tax revenue—bear the cost burden for these highways and help mitigate traffic congestion, which is the inevitable result of offering a “free” service to commuters at all hours of the day.

But city council’s plans—however they might have panned out—never came to fruition. The Wynne provincial government blocked the move, offering instead to give Toronto City Hall a larger share of gas tax revenues. Of course, this would not address traffic congestion and local taxpayers would continue to subsidize outside commuters, but it would have shifted some of the funding burden to drivers who use the roads. Then came the Ford government, which cancelled the increase in gas tax revenues.

So Toronto taxpayers are right back where they started—paying hundreds of millions of dollars every year to maintain highways without any help from road users. While some drivers may celebrate the lack of road tolls, they will simply pay with their time rather than their money, Toronto residents will pay the bills for maintenance, and the productivity of the entire region will suffer. There’s no such thing as a free ride.