The Biggest Myth of All

The tendency of many politicians is to see the shift away from gas-tax to road use charging as something so onerous as to be best left to the “next administration” is a common theme. Expedient at best. To assume that it is impossible to make this shift, as an ex-mayor of Toronto did recently is to step over the fact that such a shift it is almost certainly unavoidable – i.e., that rather than impossible it is inevitable (see outtake, below). That is the elephant in the room.

On Thursday 30 April, Steve Paikin's panel on TVO’s Agenda, (filmed live at Toronto’s Munk Centre for International Studies) included:
Paikin’s debate that night was: “Toronto: World Class or Second Class?”

The program included a Post-Show Web Chat to respond to call-in questions. One of the questions was: “Why doesn’t Toronto start charging for driving downtown?”

During the ensuing seven minute response, one was able to learn most of what one needed to know to think intelligently about road use charging. The entire socio-political history (Crombie, Giambrone), the social-urban potential (Giambrone, Murray), the social-urban value (Murray) were outlined. Toronto has never been so well informed or so prepared to have an informed debate, as they were that night.

The heart breaker was Sewell’s unfortunate overstatement that followed such a mature understanding from the prior speakers. He said emphatically that it could never be done. Ever. That it was a dead issue. That three other sitting mayors he interviewed told him so.

Thoughtless consensus like this burned witches not so long ago. Exaggerations like Sewell’s (well known for thinking only in black and white), help hide the truth from Paikin’s viewers.

Sewell’s door-closing diatribe serves only to scare Toronto and its politicians away from grown-up debate. His unnecessary and simplistic comments overshadowed and negated the intelligent comments from Giambrone and Murray, as well he mocked the question that some congestion-oppressed Toronto citizen posed.

To see this seven minute segment, go here: then click Post-Show Web Chat (check you are in the right video by checking length is 25:16). Listen from timemark 16:55

FULL TRANSCRIPT: 7 minute segment of Toronto: World Class or Second Class? TVO Agenda. Steve Paikin - Exclusive Web Chat

Steve Paikin [show host] here’s the next question: “Why doesn’t Toronto start charging a tax or a fee for driving downtown?:

SP: Is that something that you ever considered back in the 70’s?”

David Crombie [Toronto Mayor 1972-78]: “No.”

SP: “Would it have worked today? Other places do it.”

DC: “It might, it certainly… in London they had a good experiment, and I just don’t know how they are doing now. I just don’t know.” The Toronto experience that I had, it was not on as a policy, no. We tried other ways in which to make driving downtown more difficult, we chose not to widen streets even though we were pushed to do so, etc… we tried a number of things, but using a pricing system, no. We put up the cost of parking.”

Adam Giambrone [Toronto Councillor since 2003 and chair of the Toronto Transit Commission]: “There are lots of cities that tried to do so. Singapore, Stockholm, New York tried and got pushed back, they are still trying, and London… you know, we could do it but the traffic situation in the GTA is not just about a downtown. You look at the biggest problems in 20 years from now – it’s not going to be the 416, it’s the 905 so you’ve got to be, there’s no, despite what everyone thinks it’s not going to be able to get much worst on the DVP in the rush hour… what we need is a comprehensive regional road tolls, you need to be able to toll people for going from Richmond Hill to Mississauga… coming downtown. You’ve got to put it that way then everyone is on an equal footing so you are not putting another tax on the downtown regions, because you want economic activity coming downtown and also, it actually addresses where the real problems are, which aren’t just downtown. Now I’m not saying there aren’t problems downtown with traffic, but it addresses the entire region and that’s how you do it and that also brings you enough revenue… just taxing… tolling… people coming downtown doesn’t give you enough revenue to actually invest in real public transit and cycling and walking alternatives that are going to shift the modal split, getting people out of their cars and into other modes.”

SP: “Glen….”

Glen Murray [Winnipeg Mayor, 1998-2004, President of Canadian Urban Institute]: “Two things, one, we talk about innovation Skymeter is a Toronto company and its got a technology solution that I think is very workable, if we have the political courage to implement it and it would get rid of parking ticket enforcement and would save us hundreds of millions of dollars and be able to redirect policing to better things and simply have a scale because you can use a GPS system most people can buy. Most of us buy these things so we don’t get lost anyway and so why not take this made in [Toronto] technology which they’re selling to other cities and do it.”

SP: “What does it do?”

GM: “Basically you have a little monitor, and you can park and move everywhere and you pay for road services based on the amount you use and it’s like instead of putting money in a parking meter or paying parking fines, which God knows if you live in Toronto you’ve… I’ve made very generous contributions through the parking authority, here [laughter]… but it’s also this, it’s and people may say that’s unfair, but think about this, over half the property taxes you pay in most Canadian cities and I would guess given the high dependency that Toronto has unfortunately on property taxes doesn’t go to services to your home it goes to services to your automobile and if you live in high density residential and you don’t own a car then you are paying … more than half of your property taxes are going to support the road, parking and infrastructure of that. Why not go to a little fairer system because one of the differences we could learn from Europeans is that you can afford to live in Madrid even though you pay a lot higher taxes than you do in Toronto overall because you don’t have to pay for an automobile which costs you about 12-14 thousand dollars a year, all in, with what you have to do that… and believe me that improves your disposable income especially for working middle class and lower middle class who have to own a car, when you liberate people who can actually spend more time with their kids in the park and a walk there, so why not show some real leadership. Why not invite the citizens of Toronto and the province into a conversation with the provincial and federal government?”

SP: “We’re going to do it next week, a week tonight were going to do it, transit users, cyclists, drivers, truckers, pedestrians… Sharing The Road – that’s our show a week from tonight.”

GM: “Why don’t we make Toronto’s economy if we’re talking about the great economies, and do the bold and the brave, and make us the new system for better more efficient transportation and traffic management and make us a world leader in it.”

SP: “John Sewell…”

John Sewell [Toronto Mayor 1978-80]: I think the traffic problems in the 905, you put a road toll on the 905, or you suggest it as a politician, you will never be elected, ever, so it’s a dead issue, I wish that wasn’t the case, but I was talking with three Mayors last week in regard to my new book [The Shape of the Suburbs: Understanding Toronto's Sprawl] and every one of them said, if we suggest that we will never get elected we are interested in being in power, and therefore...”

SP: “You don’t begrudge them that do you?”

JS: “No, no, no, and the point is…

DC: “…I thought John might!”

AG: “In Stockholm they had a referendum after they implemented it and people voted to keep it because they saw the effect it had, so I’m not disagreeing with you [John] but on the analysis of the politics of it – that’s the problem – but you know it can happen.”

JS: “I’d love to see some one run in Markham on the basis we’re going to have a road tax, they, you won’t hear from them ever again.” [laughter]

GM: “You don’t start it in Markham, that would be like trying to start Medicare in Alberta today… you try to find soil that you can sow it in… if you look at the success that the Americans had with Home Rule… I really think we should learn something there. They have been more successful there than other Canadian cities have had and that Home Rule structure that gives you a series of options so you don’t have to shove it down people’s throats, and you can have democratic citizen participation.”

AG: “The New York assembly blocked the city of New York which was taking it’s democratic right, you know, the Mayor’s elected by the city, they tried to do it and the state assembly convened and specifically blocked them from doing it, so...”

JS: “It should be very interesting to see whether in the city council of Toronto anybody… a majority… would support a road toll. I suspect that people in Etobicoke, North York, and Scarborough are going to say, ‘we don’t want a road toll.’ ”

DC: “The issue in being cut as a road toll, a tax …you pay your money. If the issue is cut starting with even your program what says how do we share the road …and how do we pay for the road that we’re sharing. You’re now cutting the issue a little bit differently the way in fact as has just been suggested we’re now going to talk about sharing the road, how do we pay for that road what’s the technology that we are using can we export that technology and make money out of doing so that’s a much better way of approaching...”

GM: “We forget one part of this; this is a big revenue generator obviously, right? If you just made this revenue neutral and you give Torontonians a 25 or 30% property tax cut and said you can now, and unlike having to write a tax which you have no choice of, you know have a choice of how much you use your car and where you park. It’s now citizen centered controlled taxation. I now control how much I pay, by how much demand I place and if I use less I don’t have to pay for my neighbour who drives an SUV and if they want to do that then they pay for the privileges which is how we pay for many of our services, but you make it revenue neutral you get the tax and if you don’t just shove this in you start a dialogue and you take two or three years which is what they have done in countries which they have done that and you don’t start it in Markham as brave as my dear friend John is and he’s a very brave guy but, you start it, you give cities the options and then when people start to see a big reduction in their fixed taxes all of a sudden in a savvy group of people like Torontonians who don’t embrace the automobile given how much we subsidize it publicly on top of that right now these days – I wish I was an automobile – you get a better subsidy from the federal government than anyone else does why not explore this as a discussion?”

SP: “You have all done such a good job at promoting for what our show’s going to be next week I’m going to bring the gavel down this is a good place to end. Can I thank you once again: John Sewell, Glen Murray, David Crombie, Adam Giambrone – Great discussion – Happy Birthday Toronto, 175. Good night from the Munk Centre at the University of Toronto.”

Outtake from a recent paper for a US audience, which applies to the Golden Horseshoe, equally:

"We currently pay for our roads with various combinations of fuel taxes, property taxes, sales taxes and spot-tolls associated with specific road segments, tunnels or bridges. In the United States fuel taxes fund less than 50% of the requirement, with individual states varying from that average. Worldwide, this figure may vary, but the trend is the same everywhere – the burden of funding roads, managing congestion and reducing emissions has reaching crisis proportions. The word ‘bankrupt’ has frequently been used to describe the US Highway Trust Fund over the past two years.

"The move toward fuel efficiency, greener energy and even reduced travel in many countries serves to diminish fuel tax revenue, ensuring that every success in transportation efficiency threatens the viability of the infrastructure those vehicles use. To depend on taxation of the energy source we are trying to abandon absolutely threatens our surface transportation networks. With every increase in transportation demand, capital expense and operating expense, fuel-based funding becomes less sustainable. Without stable and sustainable funding, transportation planning is hobbled and once thriving economic jurisdictions choke on mobility demand. This effect is already apparent in most, if not all megaregions of our six populated continents.

"Hence, we are being forced to reestablish a sustainable revenue-base for our road networks. Governments can tax anything they wish. Seeking to minimize political controversy, this may lead to new sales taxes, property taxes, and use of general funds. However, charging for use according to when where and how much is driven opens the door to a powerful demand management tool that can manage productivity-throttling congestion. If we consider vehicle type in a progressive charge calculation we can also speed the change to greener vehicles. Paying for use as detailed in the February 2009 report “Paying Our Way” from the US Congressional National Surface Transportation Infrastructure Finance Commission can be set up as win-win for all stakeholders."

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