Skip to main content

Traffic passes under the E Tag electronic tolls toll on the Transurban Group toll highway outside Melbourne, Australia Monday, January 31, 2005. Photographer: Phil Weymouth/ Bloomberg NewsPHIL WEYMOUTH/Bloomberg

As a general rule, it's better to force users to pay for scarce resources rather than giving them away for free, but when it comes to roads, Canadian cities have been wrestling with that principle with little success. Greater Vancouver's convoluted referendum this year, imposed by the B.C. government, has, for the time being, made things worse.

A report from Toronto's city government offers some gleams of clarity on road tolls. The tentative conclusion is that tolls on two major urban highways in Toronto – the Gardiner Expressway and the Don Valley Parkway – could pay for these roads' reconstruction over the next 30 years. The news is good and comes none too soon; in some places, the Gardiner is already crumbling.

Tolls might not do a great deal to reduce congestion. The report estimates that a driver would typically benefit by three or five minutes per trip. Many drivers surely prefer the status quo, where roads are free to drive on. But that's an unfair imposition on taxpayers who don't drive. Subsidizing roads encourages overconsumption.

The report says tolls will be self-defeating if they are set too high, for example in an attempt to pay off the Gardiner and Don Valley repair cost in only five years. Too high a toll would push drivers onto other routes in the city, making things worse. Tolls spread over a longer time with lower charges, however, wouldn't incite drivers to boycott.

The proposed charges are by no means oppressive. There are two basic options. In an "open system," a driver in a light vehicle might pay a flat $1.25, anytime they entered the expressway. In a "closed system," the driver would pay in proportion to the distance actually travelled, say, 10 cents a kilometre. The second system is better in principle, but also more complicated to set up and maintain. Either route is better than the current model, where taxpayers pay to give drivers unlimited use of free roads.

More work needs to be done, but the report, which was commissioned only in June, is a good start. Let's hope that Torontonians will be spared perverse proposals such as an extra retail sales tax to pay for better roads and transit, as in the doomed Vancouver referendum.

Mayor John Tory and the Toronto City Council should pursue the initial staff report's direction.

Interact with The Globe