Any road tolls must be reasonable for drivers

Item date: 
March 1, 2012
Item context: 

A very positive York Region News editorial in follow-up to last week's front page article which widely quoted Martin Collier. We only disagree that toll rates should be comparable to NY State Thruway (NYST) rates rather than the 407 rates. See below the editorial for why.


EDITORIAL

ISSUE: Don Drummond report recommends province consider highway tolls.

There’s no question it can be costly to be a commuter these days.

With gas topping $1.30/litre this week and auto insurance rates reaching an all-time high, the last thing we need is another fee.

But the often-maligned road toll may, in the long run, benefit drivers.

The concept of such fees is back on the table as economist Don Drummond included them among his many recommendations to the provincial Liberals last month.

Yet, charging an additional fee to drive on the Greater Toronto Area’s 400-series highways has, in fact, been debated for years.

Recent polls have hinted we may now be prepared to pay to use roads. More than 60 per cent of respondents to a recent Environics poll, commissioned by the Toronto Board of Trade, agree the GTA’s roads have reached a “crisis point”.

A survey conducted by Leger Marketing found half of Canadians surveyed said they would pay $3 a day for road tolls.

There are a myriad of options available when it comes to how to collect the tolls and where to implement them.

One option, for example, suggested by the C.D. Howe Institute last fall, would be to implement a toll for vehicles with a single occupant to allow that driver to use an HOV lane. With another 450 kilometres of HOV lanes planned for 400-series highways in the next two decades, a revenue opportunity certainly exists.

The toll road concept has its supporters.

“People can no longer go where they need to in a reliable fashion,” Transport Futures learning events founder and road tolls advocate Marty Collier argues. “If this got 10 per cent of drivers off the road, all other car journeys could be quicker. It’s simple. Would you rather be in the car or with your family or at your kid’s soccer match? Would that be worth 10 cents per kilometre?”

Opponents say road tolls are simply another tax the average worker can’t afford and, if implemented, will push drivers off the 400-series highways and onto secondary roads.

While it’s true such fees may reduce highway traffic volumes, for those continuing to use these routes, that’s a good thing.

It may also encourage more motorists to give up driving to work and, instead, make use of our growing public transit system. Higher ridership figures could reduce the level of subsidy all York Region taxpayers ante up.

Yes, we are talking about lowering regional taxes, while, at the same time, increasing what we pay to the province, but there truly is only one taxpayer.

We are increasingly becoming a user-pay society and highway road tolls are just another step in this direction.

The key, though, is that tolls, must be reasonable, akin to what motorists pay to access interstate highways in neighbouring New York state versus the tolls, surcharges and other fees charged by the corporation that operates Hwy. 407.

Some of our readers have argued all funds collected through tolls, if implemented, must go back into transportation.

We agree.

While some could be used to fund transit initiatives and research, highway maintenance and improvements should claim the bulk of the cash.

The truth is, many of our major highways are in deplorable shape and expecting the province to fund all necessary reconstruction while it works to eliminate a deficit projected to reach $30.2 billion by 2017 is wishful thinking.

And if the tolls we pay are used to fill in the gaping potholes that litter our highways and can easily destroy a wheel bearing or throw your vehicle out of alignment, they may, in the long run, be a more cost-effective option.

BOTTOM LINE: Highway tolls another step in the direction of our user-pay society.


TRANSPORT FUTURES' RESPONSE TO TOLL RATES:

We disagree with the editorial's view that GTA toll rates should be comparable to New York State Thruway (NYST) for the following reasons:

  • NYST's 800 km length was built for millions in the 1950s while the 407's 108 km was built for billions in the 1990s.
  • NYST services predominantly rural areas and the 407 services growing urban municipalities.
  • The 407 is competing with the third busiest North American highway (401) whereas NYST is competing with local roads used primarily by farmers.
  • 407 is all electronic while the NYST still uses coin-drop technology (though it recently added EZ Pass for 1-2 lanes per toll plaza).
  • 407 has invested over a billion in the road since leasing it, meaning a billion dollar saving to the public purse.
  • 407 runs one of the largest call centres in North America = big costs.
  • 407 must pay shareholders (including Canadian Pension Plan that owns 30% share).
  • according to WIKI, an NY trip should be double the current rate based on the value of tolls paid for a trip of similar distance in the 1950s (i.e. taking into account the rate of inflation).