A traveller driving into Toronto from the airport after a sojourn in the South of France finds himself missing more than the cheese and the rosé. He misses the roads. The roads leading to downtown from Pearson are a sight. Rusty guardrails, pitted asphalt, poor signage. The highways in France make this city look like something out of Eastern Europe before the Berlin Wall came down. They are smooth, clean, beautifully maintained – and, more often than not, tolled.
Road tolls are standard in many European countries, from Italy to Norway. It’s just the way things are done. The tolled French highways, often run by private companies, stand out for their excellence. If you are a visitor and don’t have an electronic pass, you pick up a ticket at the tollgate when you enter and pay at another gate when you exit. Drivers are charged according to distance travelled. The tolls help pay the cost of keeping the roads well surfaced and well signed. Those behind the wheel may not like paying them, but then they wouldn’t enjoy driving over pitted asphalt either.
The contrast with Canada is striking. Here, tolled roads are rare and controversial. The massive 407 highway in the north end of Toronto has been a hot potato from the time it opened in 1997. The NDP government in British Columbia actually scrapped the tolls on a couple of busy bridges in the Lower Mainland. Liberal Kathleen Wynne denied Toronto Mayor John Tory the right to levy tolls on a couple of local highways: the Gardiner Expressway and the Don Valley Parkway. It is impossible to imagine her successor as Ontario Premier, Progressive Conservative Doug Ford, charging drivers a cent for using the roads. He is all about ending “the war on the car.”
And yet, going the French way and putting tolls on more roads makes good sense, for two reasons. First, it helps raise the many millions of dollars required to keep our roads in shape. It is only fair to shift some of that burden off the general taxpayer and put it on the people who use the roads. User pay is a widely accepted practice in this country. Toronto ratepayers pay a fee for the water they use and the trash they throw out. Why shouldn’t they pay a little more for the roads they drive?
Second, it makes drivers think twice about how much and when they use their cars. “Attaching a fee to driving, for example in traffic hot spots at peak times, increases urban mobility by encouraging more informed transportation choices, while making all other transportation investments work better,” says Canada’s Ecofiscal Commission, an economic think tank.
A city that worries about congested roads and polluted air should be prodding drivers to limit how much they use their vehicles. The “free” roads we have now do the opposite. They invite drivers to drive. In the era of climate change, that it the last thing we should be doing.
Tolls are not as hard to collect as they once were, or as irksome for the driver. Tolls booths and loose change have been replaced by transponders and licence-plate cameras in many places. Singapore has had electronic road pricing for two decades. London and Stockholm have successful congestion-pricing systems. Why not Toronto? Only the 407 is tolled and any talk of tolling other routes meets a blizzard of opposition.
This city has some of the worst traffic in North America. Its highways are undermaintained and its transit system underbuilt. Mr. Tory was right: Toronto needs tolls to help pay for new transit lines and help keep its highways from falling apart.
France shows the way. If a country with high government spending and an enduring belief in the power of the state can have a network of private, tolled highways it is a mystery why Canada can’t. Those rusty guardrails on the trip into town are an embarrassment. A Frenchman driving past them would shake his head and exclaim: mon Dieu.
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.