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Minister of Environment and Climate Change Steven Guilbeault speaks to reporters in the foyer of the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Feb. 14.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

The nerve of that Liberal Environment Minister, proposing that we dig up all the roads in the country! Imagine thinking we could just do without roads! Doesn’t he know what a big country this is? Doesn’t he know that people need roads to drive their cars on? How out of touch can these enviro-fanatics get?

That will give you the flavour of the reaction to Steven Guilbeault’s musings in an address to a Montreal conference earlier in the week. So it is with some relief that I can report the minister did not actually propose to eliminate the country’s extensive network of roads, all 1 million kilometres of it. He did not even propose to eliminate a part of it. He just proposed that we should not add to it.

Actually he didn’t even say that. He just said the federal government would not fund any additional roads. (“Our government has made the decision to stop investing in new road infrastructure.”) Cities and provinces could still build new roads to their hearts’ content; the feds, for their part, would continue to pay to maintain existing roads. “But there will be no more envelopes from the federal government to enlarge the road network.”

Even that was later walked back to say that the feds would not fund “large projects,” but by then it was too late: The hysteria campaign was already into overdrive. “Does this Minister understand that most Canadians don’t live in downtown Montreal,” Alberta Premier Danielle Smith fumed online. “Most of us can’t just head out the door in the snow and rain and just walk 10km to work.”

The Conservative transport critic, Mark Strahl, denounced the minister for this “radical and extreme” position, predicting “millions of Canadians will find it impossible to go to work or pick up their children from school” as a result. A right-wing columnist saw it as part of a dystopian plot in which “millions of Canadians” would be deprived of their cars and “forced into cramped spaces in city cores.”

“What if you farm near Rolling Hills, Alta., and you have to get ag supplies?” Lorne Gunter asked. “The nearest centre is Brooks, 44 kilometres away. Are you supposed to walk there and back, pulling tonnes of bulk fertilizer behind you?” Now, I’m just a simple urban columnist, but I’m guessing the answer is no. Possibly that Rolling Hills farmer could drive to Brooks and back on the highways that now connect the two.

Well, all right, maybe the federal government will continue to maintain the existing road network, but is it any more defensible for it to stop funding the construction of new roads? With our cities already clogged with millions of cars, and the population growing as fast as it is, can the minister really be saying, in effect, why should I build your roads?

Ontario Premier Doug Ford professed himself “gobsmacked” at the thought. The minister, he tweeted, “doesn’t care that you’re stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic. I do. We’re building roads and highways, with or without a cent from the feds.” Which is an interesting argument for federal funding: With or without it, the results will be the same.

Equally interesting: seeing Conservatives, and conservatives, demanding the continued socialization of road construction, in the province with one of the world’s most successful toll roads, Highway 407. Private capital is clearly willing and able to build new roads. Yet it is instantly ruled out. The Premier even boasts of his unwillingness to allow any more toll roads in the province.

There would seem to be three questions in play. One, should anyone be building more roads? Two, should government? And three, should the federal government? Let’s take them in reverse order.

The question is not so much whether the feds should continue to fund road construction as how they ever got into it in the first place. The Constitution assigns responsibility for “Local Works and Undertakings” exclusively to the provinces. Beyond the Trans-Canada Highway and one or two others, roads are quintessential local works.

It may have suited the political interests of successive federal governments to pay for road construction, and it may have suited the provinces, for all their touchiness about federal interference, to let them. But it is not natural federal turf. A conservative, in particular, ought to welcome the federal government – this federal government, in particular – finally realizing that.

Maybe roads aren’t a federal responsibility, but are they government’s? Again, not by nature. As a general rule, we pay for things through government that can’t be paid for in any other way. What defines something as a “public good,” for which private markets fail, is that it is impossible to charge consumers for it – to reserve its benefits to those who pay for it and deny them to those who don’t.

The classic example is national defence. You couldn’t charge people individually to be defended, because they’d still get defended whether or not they paid. If enough of the public figured this out, electing not to pay in the expectation that others would, the result would be to leave everyone undefended, or at least underdefended. That’s why defence has to be paid for collectively, through taxes.

But roads aren’t like that. As the experience of Highway 407 and other toll roads around the world shows, it’s perfectly possible to charge a price to those who want to use a particular road. And if you can, you probably should. Let private capital build the roads, and reap the returns. Not only does this offer a good test of the demand for a given road – from drivers, that is, rather than politicians on the hustings – but it frees up scarce tax dollars for things that can only be paid for by taxes.

That’s particularly critical at this point. Government finances, federal and provincial, are under increasing strain, caught between an aging population and a deteriorating international security situation. The feds, in particular, are going to need to spend tens of billions of dollars more every year in the near future just to prevent our military from collapsing. And yet, faced with a government doing, for once, what conservatives rightly demand governments should do – set priorities, and make choices – the universal conservative reaction is: not a dime less!

Fine. But shouldn’t somebody be building more roads? What about all that bumper-to-bumper traffic? What about all those new Canadians? It’s true that congestion in our major cities is at crisis levels, and it’s true that this is likely to worsen as our cities grow. It doesn’t follow that the answer is to build new roads.

Why not? Consider the underlying premises: that current traffic levels are a given, a simple function of how many cars there are; and that, if more cars per road increases congestion, more roads will decrease it.

But current traffic levels are not merely a function of the number of cars. They are a function, as most things are, of price – or rather, the absence of price. Having built the roads at public expense, we give away scarce road space for free. The result is an almost perfect example of the “tragedy of the commons.” Everyone gets up early to “beat the traffic” on their morning commute, but since everyone has the same idea, the roads are just as clogged as if they’d all stayed in bed.

Of course, one way or another road space will be rationed. In place of tolls, road space is rationed by time: You pay, not in dollars, but in hours and minutes spent sitting in traffic. The highest “bidders” for the roads, therefore, are the ones willing to spend the most time on them, that is, who put the lowest value on their time.

That’s perverse (the point of a road is to minimize travel times, not maximize them), the more so since people who put a higher value on their time – just-in-time delivery trucks, parents on their way to daycare etc. – are stuck in the same traffic jams.

It also explains why building more roads doesn’t reduce congestion. “Build More Roads” is the right’s answer to the left’s “Build More Transit.” Neither has ever been a solution to traffic, because neither gets at the problem at its roots. That is, both seek to make the traffic go faster, either by increasing the number of roads or reducing the number of cars.

But to “make the traffic go faster” is merely to reduce the time-price of driving. How do people respond? As they do to any price cut: by increasing demand. There is a vast literature on this: Wherever and whenever roads are added, people respond by driving more.

The only way to reduce congestion is to put a price on road use. We know this, when it comes to parking on the roads: Parking fees are an accepted tool of traffic management. But whether a car is moving or standing still, it takes up the same amount of road space.

Road pricing might once have been impractical, when it meant flinging quarters at a toll booth. But it’s now possible to charge to use the road network the same way telcos charge to use cellphone networks, electronically. Only mulish inertia, and the false belief that the roads are now “free,” explain our reluctance to do so.

Can there ever be a case for building more roads? Sure: but price existing roads first. Then let entrepreneurs risk their own capital on the proposition that a new road can lure away enough traffic to pay for itself.

All of this may sound like it is a long way away politically. But road tolls, or “mobility pricing” as it is now called, are increasingly common around the world, as cities grapple with the rising deluge of traffic.

Some day the trend will reach Canada, but the starting point for more efficient use of existing roads is for governments to stop building new ones.

Editor’s note: This column originally stated incorrectly that Ontario's Highway 407 electronic toll route was "privately built and financed." In fact it was built by the province, then sold to private investors.

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