Sarah Thomson: Tolling Toronto’s DVP and QEW

There are a lot of ways to toll roads in Toronto. You could toll the city center, as London and Stockholm do. You could toll the entire GTA as the Dutch intend to do with their entire country. You could toll just the DVP and QEW as Sarah Thomson proposes.

There are a lot of reasons to toll Toronto. You could avoid raising property taxes to pay for the roads. You could fund Metrolinx’s Big Move (last I heard, they were shy $38B over 25 years – now 24 and ticking). You could reduce congestion (but parking reform would be an easier way). Or you could toll for only ten years to build out the subway as Sarah Thomson proposes.

I am pro-tolling. I am pro-subway.

But I am not for tolling this way or for this reason.

I commend Sarah Thomson for having the kahunas to propose this out loud while running for mayor. She has started a critical debate – and she is right in all but the details.

Tolling only the DVP and QEW means that commuters to and from Pickering and Oakville fund the subway, but commuters from Richmond Hill do not. This is unfair. Worse commuters from everywhere in Toronto West of the DVP and North of the QEW will also not contribute. I live in Southwest Scarborough. Perhaps I should help fund the subway, but I won’t be able to in this scheme, since I drive along Kingston and Gerrard. Our tendency to want to toll 905 commuters and not ourselves is obsessive. I want to see renewed transit. I want to see Toronto get great again. But it is our city, after all. We need a way to toll everyone a little bit, not a few people a lot. Besides if we tolled by distance traveled – not just because you used a certain road segment – then 905ers would pay a little more – but not because they are not “one of us” but only because they drove further, they used more road, they caused more congestion, and they polluted a bit more. You should pay for how much you use, not because of where you live.

Tolling exclusively to build the subway taxes Peter expressly to pay Paul. It becomes a tax, not a usage charge. I agree that some road tolls should be directed toward transit on the argument that a good transit system can help decongest the roads, but not the 100% cross subsidization Thomson proposes. We need a way to toll everywhere a little bit and to develop a sharing formula so we can repair our roads (which are in a similar state of decline as is our subway) as well as contribute to new transit.

A toll of $5 per day to someone in Pickering to use the DVP is about 110 per month – equivalent to a metro pass. This will divert traffic and move congestion to parallel roads, congesting neighborhoods and reducing Sarah Thomson's target revenue (traffic drop can be expected to be about 20%, so she needs to take that into her calculations. The 20% will largely come from time-shift and road-shift, not from taking transit).

The issue of taxing road users exclusively to pay for transit, is seldom broadly accepted. This is the case in Europe as well as the US. A report arrived in my email today from a US commentator, Bob Poole of Reason.org, a thought-leader credited with contributing the HOT (high-occupancy/toll) concept. While reading a small outtake, note the parallels for Toronto, and the GTA and the 905ers vs 416ers. Even a strongly pro-tolling leader like past Secretary of transportation in US, Mary Peters, was against extensive cross subsidization from a single facility, while she was very much for tolling everywhere using a time-distance-place approach.

Legislators and transportation officials are on tenterhooks awaiting the U.S. DOT’s decision on Pennsylvania’s proposal to put tolls on I-80. The state got turned down two years ago by the Mary Peters DOT, on grounds that its plan did not meet the requirements Congress laid down in the TEA-21 pilot program that lets up to three states rebuild an Interstate with toll financing. What Pennsylvania (still) proposes doing is to make I-80 tolls a major funding source for transit and highways statewide, not just for rebuilding and modernizing I-80 (which is what the pilot program allows). The trucking industry rightly opposes Pennsylvania’s plan as both contrary to law and as a terrible precedent that would convert a toll into a tax.

… Connecticut legislators have been debating for the past year the idea of putting tolls back on I-95 for “improving traffic flow on I-95, maintaining and reconstructing state bridges, and expanding mass transit,” according to the co-chair of the legislature’s transportation committee. In New Jersey, the transition team for Gov. Chris Christie proposed putting tolls on I-78, I-80, and I-287 so as to bail out the state’s ailing Transportation Trust Fund. Wyoming’s state senate in February approved a study that would lay the basis for applying to the feds for permission to toll I-80 in that state, but the measure failed in the other house after heavy opposition from the trucking industry.

An idea frequently mentioned in most of these proposals is putting the toll collection points at the state borders. The idea is to tax those out-of-staters who don’t vote in the state, while de-facto exempting most state residents who do vote there. That almost certainly would not survive legal challenges under the interstate commerce clause of the Constitution. (Even cutting existing turnpike tolls in half for local residents, as some West Virginia legislators recently proposed, was judged likely to be ruled unconstitutional.) And this kind of thing serves to further stoke trucking industry opposition, reinforcing the view that what those legislators are proposing is a tax rather than a toll levied in order to provide Interstate users with much-improved mobility.

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