For and against: road taxes inspire heated debate

Item date: 
November 30, 2011
Item context: 

This road pricing analysis references Transport Futures and Mobility Pricing Stakeholder Forum speaker Kurt Van Dender.

By PETER GORRIE, Special to the Star

The general theme: Tolls and congestion charges are a good idea but, although commonplace elsewhere, are too toxic here for any politician to consider.

They’re also portrayed as being able to work magic — for example, an online poll recently conducted for the CBC by Leger Marketing resulted in half the respondents saying they’d pay $3 a day for a levy that would improve their commute. A small price, the report concluded, for “a little peace of mind.”

The assumption is that taxes would somehow, suddenly empty the roads or spawn new ones so vehicles could travel at the posted speed.

But there is no magic. Fees wouldn’t automatically produce effortless commutes.

Reducing congestion would benefit the economy and drivers. It would also reduce greenhouse gas emissions — after all, it’s extremely inefficient for vehicles to crawl along, constantly slowing and accelerating. Even technology that shuts the engine at a stop falters in gridlock.

It’s usually assumed that if road taxes are to solve congestion then alternatives — primarily better public transit — must be created first for drivers who’d rather switch than pay. Or roads must be built or widened.

Setting aside the TTC’s rapid descent into The Worse Way, the assumptions simply beg more questions.

What level of taxes would alter behaviour? If toll lanes were installed along expressways, how would commuters calculate whether to pay for a presumably faster trip or opt for the slower free lanes? If public transit were the alternative, what combination of taxes, fares, travel times and convenience would induce a shift? And are alternatives needed?

Two weeks ago, at the annual Transport Futures Mobility Pricing Stakeholders Forum, Kurt Van Dender, from the Paris-based Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development said studies in several European cities found about 55 per cent of drivers were commuting to jobs or professional engagements that didn’t let them alter their timing.

But 45 per cent could travel earlier or later. Presumably, a high enough rush-hour tax would persuade them to shift, thus clearing the roads.

Is this the GTA situation? If so, what tax level would influence the time-flexible drivers?

In all cases, if the tax were set at a level most people would pay, it would simply be another fee and change nothing.

The $3 cited in the CBC poll, however, seems to be an amount people would tolerate to continue commuting as now, only with the expectation that the small charge would — here’s the magic — guarantee clear sailing and “a little peace of mind.”

Perhaps they expect other (less affluent?) drivers would switch to transit, if it existed, or highway lanes would instantly appear.

The flip side is the suggestion they’d balk at a charge high enough to make them think twice about driving.

As well, road taxes might have limited impact on downtown congestion since, as noted at Transport Futures, 20 to 30 per cent of that problem is from people circling for parking. Is the solution to make parking easier or so difficult and expensive it keeps commuters out of their cars?

Experts, at the forum and elsewhere, debate the psychology of road taxes and how to make them more acceptable. They agree taxes would be palatable only if commuters expect and experience direct benefits.

I’m not opposed to road taxes, and it’s unfortunate the current climate puts them, politically, beyond the pale. But first things first: We need to be clear about what they’d accomplish here.