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The old Champlain bridge, left, is seen next to the new Samuel de Champlain bridge in Montreal.

Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

If you’re looking for end-of-summer vacation ideas, may we suggest a road trip to visit your money.

Take a drive to the new Samuel de Champlain Bridge. It’s an eight-lane, 3.4-kilometre crossing of the St. Lawrence River, between the Island of Montreal and the South Shore. Drivers can use it as often as they like, at no charge. That’s because it cost you, the Canadian taxpayer, $4.4-billion.

While you’re there, don’t miss the old Champlain Bridge. The annual cost of keeping it from falling down ran between $28-million and $104-million, paid for by your taxes. Deconstructing it will cost about $400-million. That’s also on your tab.

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What’s unusual about this arrangement? Nothing. What’s wrong with it? Just about everything.

Canada’s roads and bridges, tunnels and highways, are almost all “free.” That means free for drivers, paid for by taxpayers. You can drive to the Champlain Bridge from virtually anywhere in Canada, from Vancouver to Cape Breton, on roads that are costly to build and maintain, yet toll-free.

Is this logical? No. It’s not economically efficient, it’s environmentally damaging and encourages urban sprawl. It does all that by subsidizing driving.

There are compelling reasons for taxpayers to pick up the tab for things society wants more of, from public education to public parks to public libraries. There’s a lot of upside in kids being able to read more, for free. What’s the social good in adults being able to drive more, for free?

But the freeway, the free bridge and the free road are the status quo. Every spring, a new construction season begins, paid for by taxpayers.

In Ontario, the provincial government’s highway capital budget is $2.8-billion this year; the province plans to spend $22-billion on highways over the next decade. In Quebec, the province is spending $5-billion on road construction and maintenance over the next two years. That includes the continuing reconstruction of the Turcot Interchange, on one approach to the Champlain Bridge, at a cost of $3.7-billion and counting.

A few kilometres west, reconstructing the Dorval Interchange has cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and the province also wants a new bridge on the Trans-Canada Highway, linking the West Island of Montreal to the road to Ontario. Estimated cost: in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

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Taxpayers will be paying for all of that, and woe betide any politician who suggests otherwise.

In 2015, the Conservative government of Stephen Harper was planning for a new Champlain Bridge paid for by users – through tolls. But Justin Trudeau, then-leader of the third party, promised to make the bridge toll-free. The rest is election history. The auditor-general last year estimated that the loss of tolls will cost Ottawa at least $3-billion over 30 years. The Parliamentary Budget Officer pegged it at $4.3-billion.

In British Columbia, tolls on the Port Mann and Golden Ears bridges were a big provincial election issue in 2017. To cover the cost of these two Vancouver-area links, the province’s Liberal government brought in tolls. But hunting for votes in 2017, the Liberals said they would cap the tolls. The New Democrats went one better and promised to scrap tolls altogether. The NDP won the election; taxpayers upped their subsidy to drivers.

And in Ontario, Premier Doug Ford recently railed against a predecessor, Mike Harris, who two decades ago privatized Highway 407, selling it off for $3.1-billion. The Harris team underpriced the asset – it’s worth about $30-billion today – but at least had the courage to toll a highway, and get its costs off the government’s books.

The current occupants of Queen’s Park have no interest in doing likewise, and neither did their Liberal predecessors. When Toronto Mayor John Tory two years ago wanted to toll the Gardiner Expressway and Don Valley Parkway – highways whose upkeep the province forces the city to pay for – then-premier Kathleen Wynne vetoed the move.

There is a better way. Federal, provincial and municipal governments should be liberating taxpayers from billions of dollars in road construction and maintenance costs, and unlocking hundreds of billions of dollars in profitable assets. That would be a boon for both the environment and the fiscal bottom line, and would free up tax dollars for things we really need.

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Politicians with courage, read on. More on Monday.

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