Will drivers embrace tolls? Not likely

Item date: 
November 24, 2011
Item context: 

Transport Futures stakeholder panelist Royson James nails many mobility pricing public acceptance issues on the head. The main thing is that implementing road pricing along with comprehensive parking policies and 21st century gas tax applications is a “grasstops issue”. In the case of GST and HST implemented by former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney in the 1980s and current Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty in 2010, the public was not part of a grassroots movement clamoring for these taxes – thus the backlash. And the public won’t be clamoring for more road tolls, parking fees and gas taxes any time soon. It takes leadership and long term vision.

By ROYSON JAMES

What do the terms cordon pricing, congestion charges, mobility pricing and traffic demand management have in common?

They are the modern euphemisms for road tolls and car taxes — part of a carefully constructed range of terms being designed to take the edge off toxic ideas to fund transportation improvements in the face of government deficits.

The terms were in full use Tuesday at Transport Futures, the sixth mobility pricing forum organized by Martin Collier since 2008. Transportation experts, consultants, planners and one or two politicians gathered at the Metropolitan Hotel. They shared the experience of European and American cities, and the lessons learned. And they exploded a few myths about the next great urban battle — congestion and managing the demand for scarce road space.

More than once a speaker hinted or said outright that, transparency notwithstanding, citizens can better deal with and accept hidden taxes over visible ones. As such, gas taxes are better accepted than road tolls.

That partially explains why citizens accepted the manufacturing retail tax and railed against the Goods and Services Tax and the HST. It explains why citizens resent and speak out against property taxes — which pay for more services that directly benefit their daily lives — but give a near free pass to income taxes. One is forever being waved in their faces; the other blends into the taxing landscape.

Traffic psychologist — yes, there is such a field of study — Jens Schade from Germany told attendees that it’s a fool’s errand to expect citizens to embrace tolls, fees and other road charges. But experience shows that opposition decreases once the measures are in...

That’s good news for this region. For while most residents want transit improvements and a good many may even advocate for congestion charges on drivers other than themselves — especially those coming into the city from outside the city borders — the majority do not want to pay road charges.

“That’s because we already pay for the road in gas taxes and licence fees,” you say.

Wait. There is another side to that commonly held position.

A 2008 Transport Canada study, “Estimates of the Full Cost of Transportation in Canada,” says the country’s annual capital cost for roads is $28.7 billion, with a further $4.9 billion in operating costs and $6.8 billion for land. Total, $40.4 billion. This does not include social and health costs such as accidents and pollution.

All the gas taxes, fuel fees, licence fees and vehicle charges cover barely one-third of the $40.4 billion.

So, in reality, roads are subsidized. They don’t pay for themselves. The driver isn’t being jobbed. And while gas tax revenues do go into general revenues for the federal and provincial governments — and should be sent to municipalities to manage the transportation network — drivers are not correct in claiming they already pay for the roads.

If there is a need for more funds to ease us out of congestion, drivers, like everyone else, may have to shoulder some of the costs.

It’s a message that’s being repeated in many quarters, some of them unexpected champions.

For example, the Toronto Board of Trade, the Canadian Automobile Association and the Canadian Taxpayers Federation (though they have a nuanced view) see value in road charges.

But before the idea becomes less politically radioactive, an even larger and more vocal chorus must demand the funds as a source of improvements to the region’s transportation network.

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