Paul Bedford’s Road Ahead

I am encouraged that someone of the intellectual stature and reputation of Paul Bedford has the courage to put his name to the advocacy of road tolling.

Most complaints about this idea center on three areas:

Over taxation. No one ever wants to pay more taxes. Fuel taxes have largely gone to the general fund and governments now struggle to explain that the fuel tax is no longer adequate in volume or in structure (it is insensitive to congestion). While no one would argue that Canadian citizens are under-taxed, it is clear that Canadian motoring is mis-taxed. In other words, the wrong thing is taxed (fuel instead of road use) and the wrong people are paying some of the tax via property taxes and sales taxes. We who favor road tolls are asking for fairness and effectiveness by way of tax shifting. Would such a shift leave every motorist neutral with respect to taxation? Likely not. Some who can change travel times or modes will be better off, some who cannot or will not may be worse off. Will most citizens be better off on the whole? Absolutely. Every transit user, every cyclist, every pedestrian, every motorist who still travels in peak hours, every worker who would be permitted more telework, every citizen who breathes air. The way to be certain that motorists are not overtaxed is to remove or rebate fuel taxes if we expect acceptance of wide area road tolling.

Privacy. There is an automatic assumption that the use of satellite tolling automatically implies tracking or monitoring of motorists. This is based on the Hollywood assumption that journey data is sent from the vehicle to a central location for processing. Some systems can operate this way and such systems can be hacked. But few governments contemplating the use of GPS data would permit this. It is almost universally denounced in the EU and as we in North America get closer to using such systems (we are currently only at the stage of economic and social theory), you can be sure no trip data will be allowed to leave the vehicle. The expected solution is one of (a) payment at the vehicle with a smart card (full anonymity) or (b) movement of billing-data only from the vehicle to a payment center. Mandated, third party audits would be used to ensure this. So while absolute privacy can be provided technically, legislation must also be in place to prevent the use of location data from tolling devices to be used in any way except to settle tolling charges and to severely discourage hacking, including culpability on the part of any private operator who was hacked and can be found negligent based on regular security audits.

Government Trust. Many anti-tolling commentators seem not to trust that governments will use the revenues fairly or properly. Others are of the opinion that governments would themselves ignore privacy constraints. I am not an apologist for government trustworthiness, but there are other routes to ensure constraints regarding revenue use and privacy abuse. I also think the “government distrust card” is overplayed and that the real underlying issue is simple entitlement: “I am entitled to free road use, as were my forefathers” and “I am entitled to go where I want and with whom I want when I want without being observed.” Such commentators as these may be are simply dishonest. Free road use is an oxymoron to anyone experiencing frequent congestion. And the freedom to go when, where and with whom I want can be guaranteed in legislation, enabled in technology, audited in practice, and challenged in court. The day we cannot to that, we have a bigger problem than funding transportation.

There are a few other objections, such as we should just increase the gas tax, or we should build more roads, but these are simply amateur misunderstandings. The real issues that governments must address and that Mr. Bedford must face are the entrenched and real perceptions regarding tax-burden and privacy. If these can be addressed in a manner that a majority believe, then the distrust argument will abate and the natural intelligence of the market will prevail.

We are at the stage where a critical mass are able to see that pricing is coming. Our governments need to move toward education regarding tax-shifting (yes, we will need to remove or rebate some existing taxes), and must also promote privacy legislation specific to location information collected for road pricing. That foundation legislation is in place in Canada and in Ontario for over a decade. This legislation should be reviewed to ensure that we can use GPS for tolling and to ensure that said use cannot admit abuse.

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