In the Annex neighbourhood of Toronto, just outside of downtown, there’s a museum dedicated to the not-so-ancient history of how public infrastructure used to be built, and who paid for it. At the intersection of Bathurst Street and Davenport Avenue sits the Tollkeeper’s Cottage.
Until the late 19th century, a toll collector lived there, and his job was levying a fee on travellers using the road. Toll houses like this were once common across North America; Toronto’s first was built in 1820 at the intersection of Yonge and King. They were there because, if society wanted roads, somebody had to pay for them. Cash-strapped governments – Canada didn’t have an income tax until the First World War – figured it ought to be users. It was a perfectly reasonable idea. It still is.
In Canada in 2019, paying a toll to use a road is rare and becoming rarer. The idea is seen – especially by drivers – as somewhere between quaint and infuriating. And as discussed in a previous editorial, asking drivers to assume the costs of a highway, road, bridge or tunnel is a step that Canadian politicians have come to regard as an extremely effective form of assisted career suicide.
But those are relatively recent developments. They are also, to some extent, uniquely Canadian. Across Europe, many highways are tolled. In Australia, highways owned by investors such as the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board are common. Even in the United States, toll highways are hardly unknown.
Canada used to have far more user-pay roads. For example, in the 1960s, two new highways running out of Montreal, north to the Laurentians and south to the Eastern Townships, had tolls. So did the original Samuel de Champlain Bridge.
Drivers hated them. They cost money, of course, but also demanded payment in the form of another scarce resource: time. A toll meant a toll booth – and a stop to fish out coins. That made tolls impractical on city streets or heavily used commuter highways. Asking users to pay for roads was fine in theory, but in the predigital era, the fee came with high transaction costs. And so we ended up with a country crisscrossed by roads that are expensive to build and maintain, yet with taxpayers saddled with those bills. That arrangement made driving artificially cheap, encouraged more of it, and subsidized sprawl.
But beginning more than 30 years ago, a technological change made possible frictionless user pay, and tolls without toll booths. Cars pay electronically, by passing sensors. Ontario’s Highway 407, built in the 1990s, has the technology. That one highway is worth $30-billion, which gives a sense of how much of Canada’s wealth is locked up in its roads.
That new electronic tolling technology should have allowed the shifting of road costs off government books, thereby freeing up billions of dollars a year in tax revenue for more pressing public issues: health care, education, public transit, whatever. That hasn’t happened and the reason isn’t economics. It’s politics.
In 2015, Justin Trudeau, then leader of the third party, curried favour in Greater Montreal by promising there would be no tolls on the new $4.4-billion Champlain Bridge. In 2017 in British Columbia, the New Democrats won the provincial election in part because they pledged to scrap tolls on two Vancouver-area bridges. That same year in Ontario, the then Liberal government vetoed Toronto Mayor John Tory’s plan to unburden city taxpayers by tolling two local highways. Rejecting tolls was one of the few things that Liberals, NDPers and Progressive Conservatives could agree on.
The only party that’s been willing to entertain a change has been the Greens. The B.C. Green Party strongly criticized the NDP government’s decision on the bridge tolls; in Ontario’s 2018 election, the Greens said they would add road pricing to help pay for public transit.
Canada has an addiction problem. Drivers are addicted to taxpayer subsidies, and politicians are eager to behave like they’ve got an unlimited supply of the drug. But taxpayer dollars are precious and finite; what you spend determines what you can’t spend. It’s been surreal to watch Ontario’s Doug Ford government trying to finesse cuts to relatively tiny programs like legal aid or francophone services, even as the fiscal elephant of a public highway system, unnoticed and unmentioned, weighs heavily on its books.
This is not an issue that any of three traditional main parties want to talk about in this fall’s federal election. It should be.