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Toronto’s Gardiner Expressway at rush hour.

Michelle Siu/The Globe and Mail

The proposal by a Toronto city councillor to investigate the idea of selling two of the city's major commuter arteries and paying for their maintenance with tolls demonstrates two important points: 1) that there are some good options available for fixing the city's clogged commuter routes that don't involve tax dollars; and 2) Toronto only knows how to plan its transportation future in the most hodge-podge and ad-hoc fashion imaginable.

The idea put forward by Councillor Adam Vaughan is one that seems to be working in other major North American cities. Both New York and Boston, for instance, are ringed with expressways and tunnels that are supported by tolls. The roads aren't necessarily in the hands of private third parties; for instance, the Lincoln Tunnel between New Jersey and Manhattan is operated by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. The toll for going into Manhattan is a whopping $13 for a car, while the return trip is free.

Drivers hate tolls, of course, because they cost money, and also because the collection process slows traffic. On Toronto's Gardiner Expressway and the Don Valley Parkway, the latter concern is irrelevant at rush hour, when traffic habitually slows to a crawl anyway. And collection can be speeded up, if necessary, with the use of transponders that allow for the automated collection of tolls.

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As for selling the roads, or setting up a private-public partnership, that too is worth exploring. As Mr. Vaughan suggests, such a move might free up monies that could be used to expand the city's underwhelming transit system.

The point is, Toronto's commuting infrastructure is inadequate, and becoming more so with each passing year. The population of the Greater Toronto Area continues to grow, as does the exodus to the suburbs, where homes are more affordable. The city is currently faced with the prospect of hundreds of millions of dollars in repairs to a crumbling section of the Gardiner. Council, already squeezed financially, needs to keep an open mind about every option.

Typically, though, Mr. Vaughan's suggestion has come on the eve of a budget meeting, scheduled for Monday, at which the repairs to the Gardiner will be discussed. This is how the critical issue of commuting is handled in Toronto: last-minute ideas thrown into a mix that includes an agency, Metrolinx, charged with expanding the region's mass-transit system, and a mayor, Rob Ford, with his own ideas about what needs to be done. Toronto's commuting nightmare is a problem that can't be fixed with eleventh-hour proposals. It needs a coherent and integrated set of solutions.

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