Toronto's Clever Mayor

Toronto Mayor David Miller has fooled us all.

Running up to the 2003 mayoral election, he said “We need to consider every possible avenue to address congestion in our city.” When asked if that included road tolls, Miller replied: “We have to look at everything” – clear evidence of his superior intelligence). His 2003 opponent John Tory, now the Ontario Conservative Leader was photographed the following day wearing a sandwich board that read: “Say No to Road Tolls.” In 24 hours the entire debate went silent. Miller went on to win. I am certain that both men knew full well that market pricing is necessary to solve congestion. I also suspect that their handlers knew no one could win with a pro-pricing position. So no pro, no con. Indeed market pricing is a conservative mantra, so Tory was disingenuous. Miller, not a Conservative, was caught between his intellect and party's requirements.

During the 2006 mayoral election, the pricing issue again crept in and was nixed by Miller throughout. Indeed, as recently as January of 2007, Mr Miller's reason for not considering congestion pricing was: “You just can't compare London to Toronto. Toronto's a new city built on a grid system. London's an ancient city.” I am still laughing at that one. A magna cum laude economics graduate from Harvard, Miller cannot possibly hold this as a viable reason not to consider pricing.

But in the past three weeks the dramatic expansion of the Green House Gas issue has driven Miller to shift his stance again. Or did he?

Let's rewind. You know from 2003 and from his sheer intelligence that if he did not have to please a road-weary electorate, Toronto's roads would be priced by now (or darn close to it) – and on their way to much needed upgrades. He has been lobbied to toll the Don Valley and the QEW, two major arteries into the city (he knows that won't work because it would just congest the parallel roads – and he's right). He has been lobbied to toll a cordon similar to the London Congestion Zone (he knows that won't work – and he's right again). He has been lobbied NOT to toll anything (he knows that won't work, but frankly doing nothing has been safest up to now).

But enter the Green House Gas fever and Miller says: road pricing “…has to be a region-wide initiative.” And he's absolutely right, it does have to be a region-wide program. And he has waited for just the right moment. I am not suggesting he is prescient, but my faith in his intelligence has been restored. I’m sorry I doubted you these last two years, Mr. Miller.

Market pricing is a tri-polar issue. The 'right' wants it for productivity and economic sustainability reasons. The 'left' wants it for environmental sustainability reasons (notice that both sides see congestion as unsustainable). But the 'middle majority' who has until now rejected pricing is being nudged by the green issue into begrudging acceptance of the reality of non-sustainability. Now Miller has said the right thing. But region-wide? How will that be accomplished? While there is reliable and private technology for this, this is a large undertaking. The hard part now will be how to get from no tolling (except for the 407) to regional tolling in a way that people will understand and accept. This will have to be done in stages, and my bet is that Mr Miller's “willing[ness] to consider charging parking levies in some areas of the city” will soon become a reality. I hope he will impose parking cash-outs on employers that provide free-parking, first.

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