Mayoral candidate Sarah Thomson waded into the politically treacherous waters of toll roads in unveiling her transit platform on Wednesday.
Most other candidates were quick to dismiss her proposal, which would place a $5 toll on the Gardiner Expressway and Don Valley Parkway to pay for an expanded subway system.
Transit and traffic experts argued the debate on road pricing is one the city has to have, squeamish politicians or no - but that this is the wrong way to go about it.
"We're going to have to look at all forms of revenue generation, including road pricing or tolls, but it has to be on a regional basis," said Paul Bedford, a former city planner and Metrolinx board member.
Mr. Bedford has long argued that charging drivers for using roads has to be part of the way the city deals with growing congestion and increasing cost pressures on a strained transit system badly in need of capital-intensive growth.
"It doesn't make any sense to toll half the expressway network in this city," he said. "The folks from Scarborough wouldn't be too happy and the people from Etobicoke would still roar down the 427 for free.
The province has asked Metrolinx, the regional transit body, to study the possibility of road tolls and to present a report by 2013. Jurisdictions from California to London and Stockholm have adopted some form of road pricing to combat congestion and raise money for transit.
Ms. Thomson argued tolling the Gardiner and DVP, which could bring in as much as $500-million a year, is the best way to pay for an expanded subway system she says is vital to Toronto's future. Her proposal would add 58 kilometres to the city's subway system at a cost of $13-billion, she told reporters.
She estimated it would take 10 years for the toll roads to pay for their share, at which point she'd discontinue them.
Mayoral candidate Rocco Rossi agreed with Ms. Thomson's argument that the city's ambitious light-rail transit plans aren't as good an alternative as more expensive subways - he has said before that if elected, he would look at revamping the $10-billion Transit City project entirely.
But he rejected toll roads as an option in the immediate future, "particularly after a week where we've suddenly found $100-million under a sofa cushion." He added that although tolls in London lowered congestion at first, over several years congestion increased to pre-toll levels. (Proponents have argued that, with population increases, congestion would have risen far more were it not for the tolls).
"I would certainly prefer subways, but … to be calling for road tolls before we sort out any other things, that's not where I'd go."
George Smitherman wasn't available to comment on Wednesday. He has said he's open to road pricing as one of many options.
Veteran councillor and mayoral candidate Joe Pantalone said toll roads risk choking the economy of downtown Toronto by deterring both commuters and cultural consumers from making the trip.
"Downtown Toronto is competing with the 905 in attracting employment and to put in an additional charge of $5 for anyone who works downtown is to have even less jobs in downtown Toronto," he said. "To add an additional $5 surcharge really would be destructive."
Bern Grush, chief scientist at Skymeter Corp., which studies traffic patterns and markets toll-road technology, said drivers are going to have to start paying for their pavement eventually.
"Congrats to her for being so brave," he said of Ms. Thomson. "All the candidates I've spoken to said they know they have to look at it, but they'll talk about it later.
"It's good for the city to have that debate. The problem is, you're putting the load on one group of people."