Roads tolls gaining favour
The challenge of paying for light rail and other provincially-funded transit initiatives has revived discussion about road tolling – at least in the Toronto area – and is winning significant support. The tolling of Hamilton’s city-owned expressways was recommended by staff several years ago, but rejected by council.
Last month’s provincial budget postponed $4 billion in promised Metrolinx transit funding, putting several Toronto area light rail transit projects on hold, and apparently dimming hopes that Queen’s Park will find funds for light rail in Hamilton. The fiscal retreat has enraged Toronto mayor David Miller, and re-ignited the long-simmering debate about tolling expressways to help finance improvements to public transit.
Mississauga mayor Hazel McCallion sparked the discussion earlier this month by suggesting tolls have to be considered as one way of funding infrastructure.
“We’ve got to face the music and say how are we going to pay for it,” she told 680 News, “The 407 is a toll road that people seem to have accepted very well.”
That won immediate endorsement from Globe and Mail columnist Marcus Gee, who pointed to a recent survey of 19 North American urban areas that identified the Toronto region as the most congested.
“Seven out of 10 Toronto commuters depend on their cars. Hopes of luring them with better mass transit are fading,” noted Gee. “Metrolinx, the regional transit agency, has a $50-billion master plan for mass transit with no clue how to pay for it. Road tolls could help solve both problems.”
Oakville Mayor Rob Burton was even more blunt.
“There are people who believe in magic and they think everything should be free. I wish I could accommodate them,” he said. “The title of the office is mayor, not magician.”
A Toronto Star poll found a surprising 31 percent of residents in favour of road tolling, leading the newspaper to call for “an adult discussion” of the option because “necessary transit projects can’t wait.” That may be underway as tolls have become a major issue in Toronto’s mayoralty race with one major candidate endorsing them and at least two others refusing to rule them out.
Further investigation by the Star found evidence that “a shift is taking place in political circles” and even among taxpayer advocacy organizations. The head of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, Kevin Gaudet, has been one of the most vocal critics of tolls, but has changed his mind.
“If done correctly, I think there is a way for fees, tolls and levies to occur,” he told the Star.
The issue was touched on by Hamilton council in 2008, but hasn’t been seriously debated since a 2004 staff report recommended asking the province for the right to toll the Linc and the Red Hill expressways as a way of paying for their construction and maintenance costs. That investigation was rejected by a majority of the councilors, frustrating some of the others who wanted the option considered.
“It’s that old free lunch thing – let’s build the road, and let’s get somebody else to pay for it, whether it’s the province or the farmers or the suburbanites,” commented Dave Braden, Flamborough’s representative at the time. “But introduce the concept in the Hamilton culture that says the people who use it really should pay for it, and you get oh no no, somebody else should do that.”
The consultant study behind the staff report calculated that a 10-cent per kilometer toll on the two expressways would generate about $14 million a year and go a considerable way to footing debt repayment and the on-going maintenance bills for the roadways. Debt charges are a little over $10.2 million this year and will still exceed $9.3 million in 2016.
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