Gas tax, road pricing and the CAA

Driving home from the Smart Transportation Summit (Toronto, 2010.12.07), I had a conversation with a colleague who had attended the Road Pricing & Smart Growth Conference in Toronto (2010.12.02).  While there, he was at a discussion table with "a young woman from the CAA" who said the CAA wants to see the Provincial (Ontario) and Federal fuel tax revenues shared in a way that might benefit the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA).

My colleague asked:
"What is the CAA's position as the gas tax dries up?"
"What do you mean?"           
"Well, people are buying more and more Priuses and Volts."
"As cars become more and more electric, we won't have much fuel tax to share."
"Oh, I never thought of that!"
"Seriously? There are 100s of papers and government-funded studies concerned about what to do as the fuel tax dries up."
"Huh! I didn't think the government thought that far ahead!"

I know several automobile associations, and I have worked with a few of them. The Australian AA asked the government for road pricing schemes to relieve congestion.  The ANWB (Dutch) helped the Dutch government to design their (now iced) system.  The Royal Automobile Club Foundation (UK) has written extensively in favor of road pricing (its head, Professor Stephen Glaister, even starred in a documentary called Gridlock a few years ago to defend the now-hideous-in-hindsight London Congestion Charge.)
The CAA is the only automobile club I know in the developed world that does not constructively engage with the road pricing conversation.  They are knee-jerk against it, and that is irresponsible to its constituents – Canada’s drivers – bordering on the criminal.

The Canadian Automobile Association has a critical role to defend its constituency.  Our roads are inadequate, we cannot build to keep pace with congestion, and road pricing – the keystone of TDM – is critical to the solution needed to maximize performance of what we do have.

The CAA should consider that they marginalize their voice and the interests of Canadian drivers by not coming to the table.  If you will accept that road pricing cannot be avoided forever:
  • Who, if not the CAA, is best suited to ensure that road pricing programs is deployed to keep the road under our cars, rather than to force cars off the road.
  • Who, if not the CAA, is best suited to ensure that road pricing not fund a “war on cars”.
  • Who, if not the CAA, is best suited to ensure all revenues are spent on roads, relieving congestion and making driving safer and more productive.
  • Who, if not the CAA, is best suited to insist that lower income drivers be protected with some form of progressive charging structure or rebate.
  • Who, if not the CAA, is best suited to ensure that if road-pricing revenue is spent on transit, then such transit needs to benefit the driver by significantly relieving congestion.
  • Who, if not the CAA, is best suited to ensure that road pricing is performance oriented and that only charges sufficient to manage congestion and fund roads be charged.
  • Who, if not the CAA, would have the strongest voice in the matter of privacy, i.e., that any road pricing technology must be absolutely private – preferably even more private than the devices and cameras used on the 407.
  • Who, if not the CAA, would have the strongest voice to demand that if GPS is to be used as part of the tolling system, then the guidelines regarding trip data that have been drawn up by the International Working Group on Data Protection in Telecommunications (IWGDPT), with input from the Ontario Privacy Commission must be followed.
  • Who, if not the CAA, is best suited to ensure that any payment service that a driver would use would conform to operating standards and would charge correctly.
  • Who, if not the CAA, is best suited to ensure that Canada not blindly follow the dominant America direction toward a simple mile-driven charge, which is a very expensive replacement for the fuel tax that would have no congestion abatement effect, as would a properly constituted system that considered time, place and vehicle-type, as well as distance traveled.
Considering the earlier comment made by the CAA staffer regarding her surprise that the fuel tax is failing and her surprise that governments "thought that far ahead” perhaps we need an alternate automobile club prepared to understand the economic synergies between congestion and road-funding method, and prepared to understand that government, like a deer in the headlight, is unable to act to solve this problem because it is terrified of the massive number of uninformed and frustrated motorists so that we drivers who cannot or will not be accommodated by transit can drive at more that 9kph in the future.

Otherwise the automobile will only continue to suffer from its own marketing success.


Jason said...

The only defense I can think of for the CAA (or, at least its Southern Ontario members) is their experience with the provincial government and Highway 407. The CAA, and other interest groups, were promised that the tolls were only to be used to pay for the highway and they would eventually be removed. Now, toll rates are determined, more or less, by a private consortium and will not be removed until 2099. Does this past betrayal still justify a lack of trust in government over road pricing?

Bern Grush said...


I am not sure "betrayal" is the right word. "Governments" are people. People make promises to move something in some direction. Some promises are intended to be kept, but later cannot be kept. Some promises are lies.

I think the original 407 promises which were made toward the end of the "predict-and-supply" era, in which the solution to congestion was to built another road, and the 407 and its promises were thought to be a one time problem that would be a 'final' solution or at least a solution for a long time. But being short of money the Government decided to use tolls it to pay for it. Thinking about road-pricing as I talk about now was not much in practice, then, so this was a toll-to-build scenario, not a toll for sustainability scenario.

Then provincial finances got worse and the province decided to monitize some assets. In hindsight it would be better if the province were keeping the 407 money now, but hindsight is easy and that is not on. If the Province had not monitized the 407, then I believe tolls would likely have been removed as promised -- or at some time that the promise could be kept and leave the fallout to a following government to deal with. Now they cannot be and we have a reliable cross Toronto link because of that.

One of the reasons to let private money build roads is that private money can toll, because those companies do not need to win votes. I am not suggesting that Premier Harris was that deep in his strategy (but Chicago was!), I think he was merely desperate to balance a budget. So do I think this particular 407-broken-promise justifies a lack of trust in government over road pricing? No, I do not.

But I do think that regardless of whether or why it is deserved, the lack of trust is real and this lack of trust is now a critical barrier to solving surface sustainability. I would never suggest, "just trust the government". Rather, I am saying, governments not currently sufficiently trusted to forces a shift from fuel taxes to road-use taxes by promise and mandate - so they will never muster the courage. However, they can find a solution in voluntary programs that offer benefits to drivers. This will require imagination, private enterprise and private investment. (http://grushhour.blogspot.com/2010/06/governments-cant-toll-roads.html). Some in the US and EU are starting to look at this now. It will come to Canada's attention before long, as well.