By Gord Price
Mayor John Tory of Toronto announced last week that he’s going to try getting road tolls on the Gardiner Expressway and the Don Valley Parkway to help pay for their maintenance and to raise revenue for the city’s ambitious and much overdue transit plan.
Guess what? It’s controversial.
CBC’s Cross Country Checkup took it on as a topic on Sunday, and I had a chance to add my contribution (the interview starts at 20:00 here).

In summary:
It’s a gutsy move, every mayor will be watching – but they’re probably sceptical he can pull it off.
Don’t expect rational responses; this is emotional – and so it’s tough to find an option that will be seen as fair.  There are all kinds of reasons to not pursue any particular proposal, especially in the hope that technology will solve the problem in the future.
That’s one of the reasons there are so few examples of tolls on highway infrastructure that do anything more than pay for new roads or bridges.  The number of cities with congestion charges can be counted on practically one hand – and most ran into political opposition from the suburbs or exurbs that used their political representatives at the state or federal levels to fight the city’s proposal.  It happened with Mayor Bloomberg’s desired congestion charge for Manhattan, and Mayor Tory may run into the same problem with the Ontario legislature.
Anyway, the idea of tolling a road or bridge is so 20th-century.  Eventually, the charging will be done, as it is with telecommunications, through the individual user’s access to the system.  In other words, through the car and truck – and the distance, time and place they use.  Oregon and others are pioneering the technology.
But again, the problem is emotional: the loss of the ‘free way,’ the right to the road we’ve already paid for – a democratic space we all have equal access to.  But without an ongoing funding option, political leaders are left with few options: defer maintenance; allow the system to deteriorate physically and through congestion until unpalatable options become more acceptable; or privatize the system and shove the problem onto someone else.
In fact, I’m predicting the emergence of the Transportation Service Provider (TSP) – the equivalent of the telecommunications giants that provide us, for a monthly fee, with all the delightful, distracting and necessary things we get through our electronics.
Imagine a future Uber that contractually provides you with all the transportation options you need through car and bike sharing, transit of all kinds, taxi equivalents, as well as parking, maintenance, technology upgrades and, especially, the information you need to access it all.  And you will be able to pay for all those options through your monthly fee, including the taxes that will be effectively invisible.
That’s what will make the model so attractive to governments: they will be taxing a third party, not the user/voter.  (How much are the taxes on a cell phone call?  You don’t know and you don’t care.  If the cost seems to be too high, you blame your service provider.)
The prospect is actually pretty scary: these TSPs will be very powerful, and will likely be able to skew the transportation infrastructure and design to their benefit.  But if voters leave government with few other options, privatization will be irresistible if not inevitable.


  1. A common confusion with opponents to tolling and pricing seems to be differentiating between ownership and allocation.
    They say “we already own/paid for the roads” and conclude we all have the right to use them for free. But having paid for the roads doesn’t imply there is actually enough to go around. (And of course as many have capably pointed out, those “paid for” roads were funded significantly by those who use them the least, through property tax, sales tax, and income tax funds in general revenue.)
    Further more, this perspective is very familiar to the way how we act when we see ourselves as consumers – I want as much as possible for as little as possible. However if we are the owners of the roads, then we have another role, and that is of … owners – and setting the price of access or use at zero is not a very effective way to make the best use of an asset.

  2. let us remember that the ‘transportation service providers’ of a century ago, while politically powerful, also left us with large networks of comparatively efficient, sustainable transportation until they were bankrupted by public motordom.

  3. $2 is far too low. How about $10 during rush hour to make a point ? ie make it higher and higher until the traffic flows ?

    1. (1) Agreed $2 is not enough, but, it is a good political starting point.If still too much traffic it would need to go up. (2) HOV should be exempt using a HOV access lane to bypass the toll .

  4. What readers need to know is that Toronto’s Gardiner Expressway is maintained by the city of Toronto, whereas it was built by the province of Ontario. There again is the clear distinction between building infrastructure and maintaining it. The mayor has every right to consider road pricing because he oversees maintenance budgets not covered by the users, which are today escalating. If memory serves, the slashing, burning Harris government downloaded the operating costs of this elevated expressway to the city more than a decade ago.
    This is outlined in a piece by the Globe and Mail editorial board that is very supportive of the notion of road pricing to counter the “free ride”:
    Further, the Toronto Planning Department reiterates that downtown has about 80,000 residents and 250,000 jobs (2011 data), but projects that to grow to 165,000 people and 350,000 jobs by 2031.
    Trips within downtown will increase to 18,000+ from 12,000 by 2031, and more than four times more trips will be taken by walkers, cyclists and transit users than by auto within downtown, similar to Vancouver’s experience.
    Trips to downtown by non-residents will increase to 250,000 by 2031, about two thirds by transit, and ~25% by auto.
    The Gardiner is crumbling. With the above stats in mind and the trend to more sustainable transport, why not consider demolishing it in favor of liberating the derelict land below for transit, cycling, parks and a sensibly-sized local road? Removing the biggest barrier to the waterfront Toronto has will be a collateral benefit.

  5. The time has come to figure out equitable and effective ways of paying the true cost of civic infrastructure services. John Tory’s bold foray should continue beyond the off ramp of Gardiner Expressway and Don Valley Parkway to extend across the City’s entire street network, and underneath it to include other critical civic infrastructure.
    High rise neighbourhoods are served by about 4 metres of linear civic infrastructure (road, water, sewage, stormwater) per household while contemporary single detached neighbourhoods are served by about 40 metres per household. The contrast in basic infrastructure requirements provides some insight into the real costs for delivering these services for different neighbourhood types. Property taxes and infrastructure fees don’t reflect these costs.
    The result is that higher density neighbourhoods pick up a greater share of infrastructure costs, and most local governments are going into deeper and deeper debt because local governments are resistant to raise taxes and service fees to a level that sustainably finances operation, maintenance and replacement of this costly infrastructure. Foresighted local governments who endeavour to do this are often constrained by senior governments that restrict development cost charges and prone to big blacktop and bridge projects, deepening subsidies to auto-oriented development.
    The collateral damage of this spectacular market failure is immense. As well as growing congestion, driving times and municipal infrastructure deficits, the Canadian household carbon footprint is one of world’s largest, and our loss of prime agricultural land is amongst the world’s most rapid. Agriculture, ironically, is one Canada’s greatest economic opportunities in a climate changing world, but squandered if we lose this natural asset.
    An effective market can halt and reverse many of these costly problems. Moreover, as good markets do, it can generate more attractive choices for Canadian households. Firstly, diverse transportation options for diverse destinations including transit, walking, cycling as well as car share and personal car. Secondly diverse housing choices that meet our socio-economic and demographic diversity, including high rise and single detached homes, and most importantly low rise, duplex, and town and row houses that are a fraction of new housing starts.
    Kudos to foresighted municipal leaders like City of Toronto Mayor John Tory and Metro Vancouver councils and former city councillor Gordon price for starting this discussion.

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