By Ryan McGreal
Published January 13, 2010
I'm going to go ahead and call BS on Eric Cunningham's op-ed in yesterday's Spectator, in which he offers a defence of the proposed Mid-Peninsula Highway. (Of course I can't actually find the article on thespec.com, but you may be able to access the PDF page.)
Cunningham starts reasonably enough by noting the recent Ontario Government study finding that GTA traffic is getting worse (thank goodness for government studies) but then veers off into the ridiculous, ahistorical argument that the solution is more highway building.
He points out:
While billions of dollars have been committed to GO expansion and other transit systems, it will take years to bring these improvements to market.
Of course, highways - like the Mid-Peninsula Highway that he claims would solve our traffic troubles - also cost billions of dollars and also take years to bring to market. Cunningham is silent on why the government should make highway construction its priority rather than regional transit improvement.
Roads, bridges, highways and transit cost money. The government has a number of reliable sources of funding. They impose serious taxes on gasoline, licence and plate fees, and there are toll fees by the operators of the 407.
The problem is that the revenues the government collects, however "serious" they may be, are not enough to cover the cost of providing road infrastructure. (For that information we have another government study to thank.)
Next, Cunningham falls into the fallacy of composition when he assumes, as many apologists for road capacity increases do, that improving flow-through in part of the network would make the network as a whole more efficient.
The environment suffers with millions of vehicles operating longer, at non-optimal speeds.
What Cunningham misses is that additional road capacity induces its own demand. Put simply, when the supply of a product goes up, the price goes down and more people demand it.
Increasing highway capacity would allow more people to drive on the highway at higher speeds, which would simply encourage still more people to locate their homes farther from their destinations to take advantage of the additional highway capacity.
Even if you manage to alleviate congestion in one artery (albeit temporarily), you end up with an even less efficient overall system, because more people are driving longer distances more frequently.
Of course, even if we ignore all these facts and pretend that patterns of highway use won't change if we build a new highway, Cunningham's argument still falls apart.
The "institutional gridlock" of the GTA is concentrated around Toronto, with highway congestion getting steadily worse as you get closer to the city. Yet we're expected to believe that a highway from Fort Erie to a terminus outside of Ancaster would somehow magically alleviate the GTA's congestion.
The mind absolutely boggles.
Cunningham closes with a dose of FUD to help "stiffen the resolve" of politicians wavering on whether to stake their political reputations on new highway construction:
Governments would be well-advised to remember that most folks old enough to drive are old enough to vote.
I'm left wondering: just how does this kind of nonsense continue to get published in mainstream newspapers day after day, year after year, in blithe contradiction of all the evidence we have about how transportation networks operate and what we need to do to make our transportation system functional and sustainable?
(Sorry to close on such a grumpy note, but I've got a sinus infection and my face feels like it's been hit with an I-beam. I have little patience at the best of times for such willful ignorance in an age when it has never been so easy to get good information and make informed, evidence-based decisions.)
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