When it Comes to Roads, We Don't Want to Know the Price

By Ben Bull
Published October 20, 2009

Today's Star makes the case for tolls. First up it's Chris Hume:

Sitting in his taxi going nowhere, the driver had plenty to talk about and plenty of time to talk about it.

"We need road tolls," he insisted in thickly accented English. "Now."

Given the circumstances, this seemed a self-evident truth. Crawling up Bay St., bicycles and even pedestrians passing on both sides, who could disagree?

But this is Toronto, don't forget, and ideas like road tolls can mean only one thing - a "war on the car."

That's nonsense, of course, but don't tell the Denzil Minnan-Wongs of the world. This is one local city councillor who isn't afraid to make a fool of himself defending the indefensible. As the cab driver pointed out, there are simply too many cars on the road.

Ironically, what the councillor and his fellow dinosaurs fail to understand is that the main beneficiaries of road tolls are drivers themselves.

Then Royston James connects the dots on transit:

The TTC plans to spend up to $30 billion through the next decade, fixing up, remaking and expanding the largest transit system in Canada.

The city cannot afford it. A staff report in September shows the TTC starts running out of approved funds in 2011. By 2012, the basic maintenance budget will be short $312 million. Over the 10 years, the total base shortfall is $1.3 billion. And when you add unfunded projects, the shortfall hits a whopping $13 billion.

So, have you heard a serious discussion on how you might help pay for what is an essential, indispensable service?

And if a mayoral candidate were to suggest you pay a few dollars and cents in tolls, with proceeds going toward your transportation future, would it sit well with you?

James continues:

The water rate charge is a user fee - you pay for what you use - and it has increasingly found favour with governments and citizens. For the government, it is a way of increasing taxes without being blamed for increasing traditional taxes.

That explains why Toronto moved garbage costs off the property tax bill and onto the water bill. As garbage costs rise, city council can raise fees while claiming taxes are low. Now, if it is that easy for waste and water, why not implement a user-pay system for transit or for roads? Both ideas are fraught with political danger.

The rationale that we are already subdividing our taxes so why not bring in user fees for transportation is a fair one.

But you can't help thinking that Chris Hume and Royston James are flogging a dead horse. For some reason we taxpayers don't seem to want to know the price of what we pay for. Better to bury it on our pay check or property tax bill.

In the end it makes no difference - we still pay. But how much? Like I said: We don't want to know.

Ben Bull lives in downtown Toronto. He's been working on a book of short stories for about 10 years now and hopes to be finished tomorrow. He also has a movie blog.

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By Ted Mitchell (registered) | Posted October 24, 2009 at 22:37:16

Ben, I don't think you really mean that it makes no difference. Because of waste from congestion and pollution, we would have a much more efficient economy, higher quality of life, and lower mortality, if there was a serious move to taxing carbon, specifically transportation fuel. It makes no sense to pay for roads like we do now through income and municipal taxes. Canadian fuel tax revenues don't quite pay for the presently inadequate maintenance of roads.

The majority of people benefit (short term cost wise) from having their road infrastructure costs subsidized by business, richer people with more expensive houses, and non-drivers, i.e. most drivers end up paying less than their fair share, especially those commuters using upwards of 30000 km per year. It's the old tragedy of the commons.

In addition to a serious gas tax, it would be even better if car insurance was paid for at the pump, then driving goes from mostly fixed costs to mostly usage costs, and that changes everything.

I believe there is no sustained recovery in our economic future until we get a serious carbon tax to change our currently inefficient road system which keeps getting more inefficient. People won't make the necessary adaptations without it as a stick, and without it as a carrot,we have no hope of budget surpluses ever again.

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