Toronto is studying road tolls and other fees to pay for public transit

Item date: 
March 25, 2012
Item context: 

It has taken five years but it appears that the City of Toronto will finally act on its 2007 initiative to study tolls, parking and gas taxes in support of Metrolinx -- and the motion was put forward by Councillor Mary-Margaret McMahon who attended Transport Futures 2009 prior to her election. Speaking of Transport Futures, we urge other GTA municipalities to join in Toronto's study while we do our part by staging our seventh conference -- focusing on goods movement -- and conduct community roundtables throughout the year. This will continue the rational mobility pricing conversation we began in 2008.


Overlooked amid the sound and fury of Toronto’s subway smackdown this past week is a decision that could do as much to shape future public transit as city council’s opting for light rail.

In a near-unanimous vote, council authorized development of a long-term funding strategy that would outline “a diverse array of public and private revenue tools” to finance rapid transit expansion.

Translation: Let’s study road tolls and a bunch of other possible fees.

Remarkably, given the bitterness tainting so much of Toronto’s transit debate, the measure passed in a 42-1 vote (with two councillors absent and only Norm Kelly opposed). Council’s right and left wings finally came together. Even Mayor Rob Ford and his brother Councillor Doug Ford were on board.

Good. At long last there appears to be a mature understanding that if this city wants steady and long-term expansion of public transit, it must find ways to pay for it. Staff are to report back in the fall with a range of options for councillors to consider.

Toronto isn’t alone in going this route. Metrolinx, the province’s regional transportation authority, is also working on a strategy to pay for a massive public transit expansion throughout the Greater Toronto Area and Hamilton. The agency’s “Big Move” plan requires about $50 billion over 25 years. And less than a quarter of that amount has so far been committed by Ottawa and Queen’s Park.

Metrolinx has until June next year to develop a funding framework. Options under study include road tolls and other forms of congestion pricing, a levy on commercial parking spaces, a regional fuel tax, express lane fees and a regional sales tax. That list warrants serious attention from Toronto city staff.

“I’m hoping this would dovetail into Metrolinx’s ideas,” said Councillor Mary-Margaret McMahon, author of the council motion to develop a funding strategy. “I wanted us to be the first ones out of the gate.”

Toronto doesn’t have the power to do everything being considered by Metrolinx, but with provincial backing any or all could be implemented in this city.

One measure the municipality could deliver on its own is a tax on commercial parking spaces. A group of conservative city councillors, led by Councillor Mike Del Grande, proposed doing just that last week to raise $100 million for subway expansion. The measure died when council voted for light rail. In any case, the proposed annual levy of $100 per parking space seemed too heavy a burden to place on local businesses. A more modest charge spread region-wide would make far more sense. That’s where Metrolinx has a key role to play. Down the road, it will need high-profile supporters like Toronto City Council.

For now, it’s heartening that councillors of every political stripe are at least willing to entertain the notion of finding new ways to pay for public transit. That willingness is a necessary first step in making it happen.