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Traffic passes under the E Tag electronic tolls toll on the Transurban Group toll highway outside Melbourne, Australia Monday, January 31, 2005. Transurban Group, which runs Melbourne's only toll road, offered to buy Hills Motorway Group for A$1.8 billion ($1.4 billion), to expand in Sydney. Shares of both companies surged. Photographer: Phil Weymouth/ Bloomberg News

PHIL WEYMOUTH/BLOOMBERG NEWS

It's a mystery why Canada has something of an allergy to toll roads. There are many tolled highways in the United States, including quite a few of the interstates; fully 26 states have them, often known as "turnpikes." When the idea is raised in Canada, it's often decried as a socialist plot or a government tax grab. It's actually as free-market as can be. Want to drive on the road? Pay for it. Highway 407, a toll highway just outside Toronto, is a rarity.

As for Toronto itself, the crumbling eastern section of the Gardiner Expressway is in no condition to continue as it is. It would make eminent sense to finance its repair and replacement – which will cost at least $2.5-billion – and that of the related Don Valley Parkway, by levying charges on its drivers, rather than raising the money from the city's long-suffering taxpayers.

But otherwise sensible politicians, such as Mayor John Tory, justifiably wary of suburban drivers who vote and voters who drive, are reluctant when it comes to tolls or congestion charges. One of his staffers recently said road pricing is just "one item on a long list of possibilities."

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Fortunately, the city government's staff has had the good sense to issue the terms for requests for proposals examining the options. The city's RFP provides for a suitably broad range of possibilities for tolling and pricing.

Toronto is in an absurd position, and one shared by cities and provinces across Canada. If you ride public transit, you have to pay a fare. And the more rides you take, the more you pay. Ditto for airline passengers: The country's major airports are funded by user fees tacked on to the ticket prices. Each time you fly, you pay. But if you drive, you can use the roads as often as you like, for free. The taxpayer subsidy to drivers is as massive as it it unnecessary.

Previous studies have shown that scanning technologies are the best option for the Gardiner and the DVP; it's how the privatized Highway 407 works. Payment is electronic and automatic. No toll booths or fumbling for change.

Last November, the EcoFiscal Commission of Canada concluded that, in the U.S. and Europe, people were initially irritated by congestion charges, but soon got used to them. Our politicians should, accordingly, get their timing right.

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