To Toll or Not to Toll?


When London Mayor Ken Livingstone instituted a “congestion tax” imposing a 12 pound toll on all cars entering London’s city core, he made waves that shook major cities across Canada, especially Toronto.

Canada’s largest cities are facing double problems: congestion is snarling their downtowns, slowing city economies and ruining city air; at the same time, Canadian cities find themselves starved for resources, thanks to inattentive provincial governments, and limited taxation powers. Getting car drivers to pay for the costs of their congestion is a tempting solution.

Transport Minister David Collenette poured kerosene on the fire when he suggested that tolls such as London’s might be used to reduce congestion and grant cities a new revenue stream. Collenette’s proposal, yet another dodge by the Federal government to get around its own lack of support for Canadian cities, produced rare unanimity between the current Mayor of Toronto and four of the five mayoralty candidates:

  • Mel Lastman: “This is the dumbest idea I have ever heard in my life!
  • John Tory: “We need a new deal, not a new penalty.”
  • John Nunziata: “Tolls are a non-starter. There are other ways to raise money.”
  • David Miller: might consider tolling, but only “in the absence of a new-deal revenue source.”
  • Barbara Hall: not opposed to tolls in principle but considers their application to be “highly problematic.”

Thanks to Andrew Spicer for summarizing these positions.

Andrew Spicer, along with a number of other city newspaper columnists see great advantages to this approach, and wish that Toronto’s mayoralty candidates were more courageous. Andrew also points out that one doesn’t need to consider a congestion zone: three expressways offer a great opportunity for tolls. The Don Valley Parkway south from Highway 401, the Gardiner Expressway east of Highway 427 and Allen Road are all owned and maintained by the city of Toronto. As full limited-access roads, the captive users could be effectively tolled. More importantly, a large number of the users tolled would be coming from outside the city, who had previously made use of Toronto services without paying Toronto property taxes.

The numbers are intriguing and tempting. Two dollar tolls on the Gardiner Expressway and the Don Valley Parkway would increase ridership on :GO Transit: and the TTC and put at least $150 million per year in city coffers. For that money, the City of Toronto could pay down the TTC’s operating deficit, and raise TTC service. Alternately, the city could expand the subway network, opening a new station every year until the end of time. Andrew goes further, suggesting that selling the Gardiner Expressway and the Don Valley Parkway to the same interests that operate Highway 407 (but in such a way that fair market price is paid) could raise $6-10 billion for the City of Toronto, solving the city’s debt problems and allowing Toronto to build two complete subway lines in the process.

And there is precident. Manhattan has tolls on almost all of its bridges and tolls entering and leaving the island. Toll roads are common in Chicago. Both cities still function. If Toronto is serious about burying the Gardiner, then perhaps it makes sense to ask the Gardiner’s users to pay for it.

I am less of a supporter of tolls. Although the possibility of placing tolls on the Gardiner Expressway and the Don Valley Parkway intrigues me, I don’t think a downtown congestion zone would be wise. One thing that proponents of a widespread toll idea don’t remember is that Toronto is not London, nor is it Manhattan.

Until recently, the flight of businesses and head offices from downtown Toronto to the GTA’s sprawling suburbs was a big concern. The market value of a prestigious Manhattan or downtown London address makes up for the additional cost of high rents, tolls, congestion and property taxes. London and Manhattan know that any business that flees for a cheaper suburban address will be replaced by a richer business hungry for a piece of the downtown action. Is Toronto’s downtown as much of an incentive, especially considering that Vaughan is about to open up a new business park equal in size to downtown Toronto? Is there a lineup of businesses waiting to fill space vacated by businesses heading to Markham? As late as 1994, office vacancy rates in downtown Toronto were alarmingly high. The vibrancy of the downtown core today is being enhanced as much by new residents as it is by new businesses.

Imposing high tolls on the downtown core imposes yet another tax on downtown businesses which are already under pressure, and see the incentive of lower business taxes in Markham and Richmond Hill. If we are not careful, instead of enhancing Toronto’s downtown, we could end up emptying it, increasing the very suburban sprawl that we hope to limit.

Tolling Toronto’s expressways is still an intriguing idea, as is the possibility of selling these properties. There is precident for it, and a reasonable toll could probably be accepted with only minor grumbling by car drivers — many of whom are already quite willing to pay the “toll” of taking :GO Transit: and the TTC if they need a break from the congestion of Toronto’s highways.

So, by all means, let us debate the merits of tolling access to Toronto. But let’s be sure to consider all possible consequences, and move with the requisite caution.

How is the Ontario government screwing Toronto? Let us count the ways…

Actually, let’s not. Let us instead take the most recent, egregious example, courtesy of Andrew Spicer. Turns out that the provincial government is calling home $200 million worth of loans handed to Toronto in 1998. Toronto, which needed at least $50 million this year in order to limit its property tax increase to 3%, is understandibly incensed.

The money was part of a package given out by Queen’s Park following the province’s forced amalgamation of Metropolitan Toronto’s six member municipalities into one governing unit. Unexpected amalgamation costs plus services downloaded by the province on municipalities burdened the city with heavy debts, and the city still could only rely on property taxes in order to pay the bills.

The province agreed that amalgamation cost far more than it had expected — that the savings originally envisioned were a complete and utter joke. We know that the province agreed because the province gave the city $250 million — $50 million in grants, and $200 million in loans. Now the loans are due.

The city has asked that the province forget about getting its money back. The province, however, is pressing, suggesting that the city give up city-owned land in order to pay off its ‘debt’ — a debt imposed by the province to pay for a mess created by the province.

If Ernie Eves’ Conservatives win more than one seat anywhere within Toronto in the next election, Toronto voters will be shown to have an unfortunately short memory.

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