Road tolls may be way of future

Item date: 
February 23, 2012
Item context: 

Transport Futures founder Martin Collier was interviewed for two hours for this article. Some information was cut due to space restrictions. See his response to the points made by the other interviewees below the article (which shows minor corrections in brackets).

Mr. Collier also provided the journalist with background studies and several professional contacts, including John Howe of Metrolinx. Unfortunately, the provincial agency's communications department would not allow Mr. Howe to be interviewed.

By JEREMY GRIMALDI

Travelling into Toronto for work is acceptable most days for Aurora’s Ryan Ducusin.

His commute down Hwy. 404 and the Don Valley Parkway usually takes 35 minutes on mornings when he skirts traffic by leaving home at 5 a.m.

However, when he is forced to return during rush-hour, the trip time is almost quadrupled.

“It’s like a parking lot on the way home. It takes me two hours,” the Toronto police officer said. “If the train was regular, I would take it all the time.”

His proposed solution is one with which an increasing number of Ontarians are getting on board: road tolls.

“Ten dollars would be too much,” Mr. Ducusin, 33, said. “I think they should start charging $5 for a trip down the 404 and a toonie to enter the downtown. I would accept that.”

Recent polls have hinted we are now prepared to pay to use roads...

Inaction is not an option, according to some experts...

One man has stepped forward with a plan he said could solve many of the GTA’s traffic problems

Just like municipal water, all of Ontario’s roads should be metered and paid for when they are travelled on, Transport Futures founder Martin Collier said.

The rates paid would take into account a vehicle’s fuel consumption, the time of day and size and popularity of the road used.

This approach is the only way to get cars off the road while raising money for public transit and road repairs and creating green jobs, he said.

Sounds like a gargantuan project, right?

It’s not necessarily as big as you might think, Mr. Collier said, noting it could be accomplished with transponders in every car for tracking road use and charging accordingly.

“People often say to me, ‘Well, that’s just a tax grab’, but I say, it’s a time grab,” the York University graduate said. “People can no longer go where they need to in a reliable fashion. 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 (traffic) or with your family at your kid’s soccer match? Would that be worth 10 cents per kilometre?”

Before a metering system could be implemented provincewide, trials would have to be completed in commuter towns and cities to test its effectiveness (and public acceptance), he said.

That’s where York Region’s drivers would come in.

“I think York Region might be a place where there would be enough political support,” he said. “It was very progressive in its implementation of VIVA, which had never been done before.”

Similar to metering trials in Portland, Oregon, project volunteers would be given transponders and receive rebates from the Ontario government for the 14.7 cent (excise) gas tax they pay per litre.

If the trial was as successful in Ontario as it has been elsewhere, Mr. Collier believes car numbers on our roads would be reduced immediately.

As for drivers who choose to stay on the roads, he said Hwy. 407, a privately run toll highway, proves motorists are ready to pay to avoid “busy and dangerous” highways, such as Hwy. 401, which has become the third-busiest highway in North America.

“It’s not a silver bullet, but it’s a shiny bullet,” he said.

The proposal would not only free up of millions of tax dollars for transit and road repairs, it would also lower police, judicial and health costs, due to a decrease in the number of car accidents — an annual cost of $17 billion to (the provincial) government, Mr. Collier said.

Getting cars off the road (and creating free flow traffic) would also significantly decrease carbon emissions, he said.

One potential stumbling block is getting politicians on board.

In York Region, representatives of both sides of the political spectrum were open to the idea of road tolls, but hesitant to accept too much change at once.

Newmarket-Aurora MPP and Progressive Conservative transportation critic Frank Klees said although he is keen to accept certain kinds of tolling, he had privacy concerns with Mr. Collier’s metering plan.

“(High occupancy vehicle) lanes currently restrict people from driving unless they have more than one person in the car,” he said. “These lanes are often empty, while the other lanes are full. It’s possible to give people a choice to get a transponder to use the HOV lanes, should they wish to pay.”

This is an easy way for the province to raise revenue, reduce congestion and better understand Ontario drivers’ views on tolls, he said.

Metering automation may eventually become Ontario’s technology of choice, but Vaughan MPP Greg Sorbara is unwilling to commit to a trial and said an improved gas tax is the current way forward.

“It may well be that one day we have that kind of (metering) system, but right now, it would be expensive to put in place, expensive to administer and would take too long to build,” he said. “Every time the cost of gas goes up, consumption goes down almost immediately. We should start building more with the gas tax.”

York Region CAO Bruce Macgregor also backed the gas tax as the way forward.
“We need direct and targeted funding to Metrolinx,” he said. “Gas tax is the most immediate and effective way to do that.”

As for Mr. Collier, he will continue touting his plan until someone adopts it.

“This is not a left-wing issue or a right-wing issue. Tolls are being done by plenty of (governments) in the U.S. and all over the world,” he said.

If (drivers) want to decide where their tax dollars go and reduce accidents, congestion and emissions, our roads need to be pay as you go, he said.

OTHER POINTS TO CONSIDER:

  • Ryan Ducusin is willing to pay 12 cents/km to get to Toronto ($6.00 for the 50 km from Aurora to downtown). Transport Futures thinks that, given the choice between free flow or 2-hour congestion on his return trip, he’d be willing to pay 20 cents/km $10.00) so he can get home in 35 minutes. However, assuming his workplace is located in downtown Toronto, he suggests paying "a toonie" for the 27 km he drives within City of Toronto boundaries. That payment will not be realistic for Toronto politicians or taxpayers who are the sole funders of the DVP. The 404 is maintained by the province - not York Region.
  • MPP Frank Klees (a speaker at the Transport Futures Leadership Summit) now supports HOT Lanes. He is correct in saying that public acceptance of these choice lanes is higher than congestion charges or area-wide pricing measures. Unfortunately, if we are serious about reducing congestion, emissions and crashes – and eliminating equity issues, the US research shows that HOT lanes are not effective. Also, because they barely raise the funds needed to maintain the facility (too few drivers paying the fee), there is no extra cash for other infrastructure.
  • Though administratively it may appear easy to increase the gas tax, it is too blunt an instrument to incent a change in driving habits and consider other modes or telecommuting -- once gas is in their car, motorists want to drive. Unless Ontario increases the current 23 cents/litre (15 cents/excise and 8 cents HST) to $1.50/litre so total price/litre is closer to $3.00, nothing will change (we'll call MPP Greg Sorbara after we see how many people change their driving habits when gas prices reach $1.50/litre this summer!). Since the Ontario excise tax has not increased since 1992 due to political reasons, we don't see any politicians implementing this policy – especially as the commodity price continues to rise.
  • Currently, only 2 cents/litre of the gas tax is earmarked to transit infrastructure – and only to the 50 Ontario municipalities who deliver some form of transit service. Besides isolating 400 municipalities that do not have transit, the 2 cents is not enough for long term transit planning and complete street retrofits that give people more choices and better service for their commute or utilitarian needs.
  • The shift to more efficient and electric vehicles means less gas tax revenues over time. This is a major reason why Oregon and other states are pushing for a comprehensive road pricing system (which is a big reason Transport Futures is also advocating for road tolls).
  • As mentioned in the article, the excise tax should be phased out (to give motorists something back) as road pricing is phased-in. HST would still apply as it does to all other consumer goods.

FULL ARTICLE