Ford Wrong About Toll Roads

By Nicholas Kevlahan
Published June 13, 2011

Last week, the Star's Bob Hepburn wrote an editorial titled, "Ford is right, toll roads are nuts".

Like most other things, Rob Ford is actually wrong about road tolls as well. I'd like to correct some common misconceptions about road tolls and the costs of roads Hepburn repeated in his article.

1) "Billions of those dollars are being used for non-transit purposes, such as paying down the government deficit."

This is simply not true.

Although motorists feel they pay too much in fees and taxes (and we do pay a lot), a very careful Federal Department of Transport study shows that federal and provincial net road fuel tax revenues and provincial fees cover only 50% to 78% of the total cost of the nation's roads.

Even if all "road related revenues" (such as speeding fines, parking charges, building prices and lot levies) are included, table 22 shows that total cost recovery is still only 67% to 91% (and it doesn't seem fair to think of building prices and speeding fines as fees motorists pay to drive on the roads!).

This 2005 study does not include the social costs of death, injury and pollution associated with road use. If all these "road related costs" were included the cost recovery rate would be far lower. Transport Canada is currently attempting to account for these social costs as well.

The bottom line is that the roads are still heavily subsidized by billions of dollars of general tax revenue each year.

2) "[M]ost [motorists] have no realistic option except to drive to work or go shopping."

This is not supported by the evidence.

Transportation use surveys done by groups such as UTRAC at the University of Toronto repeatedly show that many road users have options, even on a daily basis. They could choose to take public transit, carpool or travel at a different time or to a different destination. These options might be less appealing, but they are exist for most residents.

In the GTA, it is hard to argue that all these single-occupant vehicles need to be on the roads with our population density and GO Transit network.

Indeed, one of the main uses of tolls would be to improve the public transit network. Currently, it is much cheaper and more convenient for motorists to drive, rather than to take public transit. Tolls would allow much-needed investment in our public transit network, and would encourage more residents to use it.

In the longer run, not pricing our most scarce resources (the 400-series freeways) at "free" might actually encourage people to live closer to their work or to work closer to where they live. Right now our free-use road network encourages sprawl.

3) Tolls don't reduce congestion.

This is simple demand side economics: the price level needs to be set at the level needed to achieve the desired reduction in traffic. If congestion has returned to pre-toll levels in London, this simply means the toll price has not been increased appropriately (presumably for political reasons).

Every other transportation system (air, rail, buses) uses some sort of demand-based fees system. Why should roads be any different?

Note that the the initial result of the London congestion charge was a 30% decrease in traffic, which shows people do have a choice (despite the inadequate state of the London transport system)!

A recent OECD report noted that the GTA suffers from "Traffic congestion problems (70% of commuters use cars), poorly integrated regional transit services and relatively underdeveloped public transport infrastructure [Chap. 1.2.3.]" and costs the regions billions each year.

This is why various business groups are now supporting road road tolls.

Rob Ford may dislike "Gravy Trains" (maybe it sounds too much like public transport), but taxpayer subsidized "Gravy Roads" are just fine.


Nicholas Kevlahan was born and raised in Vancouver, and then spent eight years in England and France before returning to Canada in 1998. He has been a Hamiltonian since then, and is a strong believer in the potential of this city. Although he spends most of his time as a mathematician, he is also a passionate amateur urbanist and a fan of good design. You can often spot him strolling the streets of the downtown, shopping at the Market. Nicholas is the spokesperson for Hamilton Light Rail.


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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted June 13, 2011 at 10:37:51

Let's stop pretending that Ford is being honest about his rationales.

His desires are very simple: do whatever suburbia wants. Suburbia hates toll roads and likes free roads, even if traffic is terrible, so that's what he does. Suburbia doesn't want to see traffic lanes lost to LRT, so no LRT. Suburbia drives everywhere.

He's just doing what the people who elected him want him to do. I suppose as a politician I should respect him for representing his supporters so well.

The fact that it's shortsighted and wrong doesn't really matter.

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By AnjoMan (registered) | Posted May 13, 2013 at 14:52:53 in reply to Comment 64844

Meh. As the mayor, he is not only a representative but also a leader - while it is important for a politician to listen to their supporters, they must also interpret their supporters demands and do what is right. He doesn't just represent his suburban voters - he represents all citizens.

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By mystoneycreek (registered) - website | Posted June 13, 2011 at 10:43:48

Transportation use surveys done by groups such as UTRAC at the University of Toronto repeatedly show that many road users have options, even on a daily basis. They could choose to take public transit, carpool or travel at a different time or to a different destination. These options might be less appealing, but they are exist for most residents.

While I'm on-board with most of what you're saying in the article, this approach...which can be seen in other aspects of 'trying to change the way people think' more than a little naïve.

There are all kinds of instances in this modern world of ours where people COULD see things differently. But in the case of many/most communities that I've been in, lived in, visited, people taking far more inconvenient tacks is simply not something we should reasonably expect to see happen. Choices made by super-charging our moral compass are wonderful to dream about...but most people simply don't have the required energies at their disposal, or won't expend them in this way even if they do.

For years, I've hauled groceries by hand over distances sometimes approaching a mile. But that's me, I'm a physical person who appreciates a good trek. If you want to have people willingly conduct themselves in this way, then it seems to me that you should be more invested in looking at how to promote a society that has this mindset at its core, rather than what many in need of such inculcation would see as being 'penalized' for their behaviour.

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By James (registered) | Posted June 13, 2011 at 10:57:09

A few other points that may or may not be relevant. I didn't read the transport study, but since municipal property taxes pay for maintaining city roads (including the DVP, Gardiner and all City of Toronto streets), the gas tax and other fees associated with automobile ownership do not pay for maintaining these municipal roads and a significant portion of these roads are paid for by non motorists through property taxes and rent.

Furthermore, our tax dollars were spent to bail out the big auto manufacturers (in 2008?), and the oil sands are subsidized by the federal government.

Not to mention that vast free parking that motorists enjoy all over Ontario that are also subsidized by non-motorists.

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By Mr. Meister (anonymous) | Posted June 15, 2011 at 12:59:26 in reply to Comment 64847

I am curious how are the tar sands subsidized by the feds?

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By Deedee (anonymous) | Posted June 15, 2011 at 13:47:37 in reply to Comment 64894

The feds give around $2 billion in annual subsidies mostly via tax expenditures - fast depreciations, exploration and development expenses, sanctioned tax shelter etc - to oil companies, with most of it going to companies extracting oil from the Alberta tarsands because it's earmarked for high cost, high risk oil extraction.

The Alberta government pumps in another billion a year to tarsands developers.

A leaked internal memo from senior department of finance analysts argues that the industry doesn't "merit preferential treatment" and that Canada should phase out its subsidies.

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By SameOldSong (anonymous) | Posted June 13, 2011 at 14:32:36

Where will you put all of this new expanded transit capacity? On which new rails will these high speed trains of the future run?
Who owns all the land on which the current trains run, and how can we add more rails?

Yes, the highways are congested. Yes we need more people to carpool.
If there was a solid plan in place, fully thought out, that had a start date and end date for when this new utopian transit system was going to be up and running, then people might buy in.
Currently it's a bunch of mostly non-car owning city dwellers proposing that people who commute to work need to pay more for the privilege, and no real solution.

The GO train is archaic and overpriced compared to any modern rail system in Europe or Asia.
Until someone suggests something even close to as cost effective and convenient as the automobile, toll roads aren't going to win any favor.

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By Jonathan Dalton (registered) | Posted June 13, 2011 at 15:15:21 in reply to Comment 64851

If there was a solid plan in place, fully thought out, that had a start date and end date for when this new utopian transit system was going to be up and running, then people might buy in.

There are many plans for improved transit in the GTA. Check

GO Transit is always taking on projects to improve its service. As painfully slow as the progress is, it isn't for lack of a plan. They know what the issues are, and they are constantly buying up or building sections of track, building overpasses and underpasses so their trains can run faster and more dependably.

While it is far from perfect, the Move Ontario 2020 plan includes electric multi-unit (faster) trains on Lakeshore, and all day, bidirectional service on all corridors in the long term. There are short, medium and long term plans. They are going ahead with projects that can be funded, but in the long term new funding sources must be found. Enter road tolls.

Experts seem to agree that the only way to reduce congestion is to put a price on it. According to this study: investing in more roads or public transit does not alleviate congestion, only road tolls will. When roads cost more, people will naturally demand better public transit, so it only makes sense to invest the revenue from toll roads there.

The GO train is archaic and overpriced compared to any modern rail system in Europe or Asia.

It is however the biggest commuter rail system in North America. With 80% fare recovery, no less. Imagine what they could do if properly funded?

toll roads aren't going to win any favor.

They are not popular, they're just necessary.

Comment edited by Jonathan Dalton on 2011-06-13 15:18:45

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By Bellow (anonymous) | Posted June 13, 2011 at 14:40:23

Comments with a score below -5 are hidden by default.

You can change or disable this comment score threshold by registering an RTH user account.

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By Observer: who goeth (anonymous) | Posted June 13, 2011 at 15:27:01

Who goeth, who payeth? Roads are paid for out of collective tax money (even the 407 was). Transit structure is also built from and by the collected public purse. Yes, each 'road-user' pays for her/his own vehicle, true--and for fuel, but everyone pays for transit vehicles. Still, all benefit from good transit--just ask the hundreds of employers in central Toronto whose good, reliable employees can get to work, and home again: no workers, no businesses. Good transit brings the customers too. The question for decades has been, why roads "free use," but not transit? Which driver forked over directly out of pocket for a road pot-hole fix lately--even in Hamilton? Supporters of private capital enterprise in big cities should be clamoring for transit that is as excellent and as relatively inexpensive to ride as possible--excellent transit is at least as much a public good as are 'good roads.' Solid arguments for even free transit have been made, for all the above reasons and more. [And don't start with the "frivolous use" that such 'cheap' or free transit would 'encourage. So What? Who never went out just for 'a drive'?]Yet any tolling of roads is deemed to be heretical speech--we paid already!! Transit users pay tolls on each use. The 'free road' could even be seen as a public benefit provided to drivers as reward for their purchasing vehicles--I've got my car, I'm free of the tyranny of transit fares because our roads are 'free!' Yay! The discussion will continue, but much of it will be the male equivalent of hysterical. More on another occasion, perhaps.

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By Kiely (registered) | Posted June 13, 2011 at 15:45:31

How many more taxes (that's what a toll is) does RTH think the average family can afford? Does RTH see no issue with regular people paying more and more? I want people out of cars too, but I am not so willing to throw the cost burden on those who were duped into this costly and largely unnecessary system to begin with.

Who lobbied for these roads? Who lobbied for the suburbs that essentially force people to use these roads? How did so many of us end up commuting so far for work? When I was a kid that was largely unheard of. Did we make this choice freely? The modern road and highway system, like many other things masquerading as "societal benefits" really benefit and are subsidies to corporations. The subsidy of the automobile and the systems it relies on was not and is not a subsidy for the people. It is a corporate subsidy.

Maybe we shouldn't be driving an hour to work so we can sit in a cubicle just to send emails or talk on the phone? Maybe that's what is nuts? Maybe we need to think beyond taxes/fees on users? Maybe we need to examine why we actually do the things we do and fundamentally change the way our society operates rather than taxing things we want to control because they're destructive?

Why can we not encourage (force?) more companies to allow people to telecommute, allow flex shifts or provide incentive to employees to car pool? How about making the cost of owning a car higher rather than constantly raising the cost of operating a car? Seems to work in Singapore. Of course car companies sell fewer cars.

Why are we not intensely focusing on creating healthy, sustainable, local economies, where cars aren't needed?

I'm being a bit contrarian with this post to make a point but I think these are things people need to think about. Arguing about this issue in a car-user versus non-car-user (or suburban versus urban) context is somewhat flawed and omits the true beneficiaries of our road subsidies… corporations.

And if we really want anything to change we needed more and better mass transit yesterday.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted June 13, 2011 at 16:05:43


Publicly-funded roads are a subsidy on automobile travel. Adding toll roads is not creating a tax, it is removing a subsidy. Removing that subsidy will free up tax money that can either be returned to the public in the form of a tax-cut, or can be used to directly help struggling families instead of indirectly helping them by letting them spend more time trapped in traffic.

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By Kiely (registered) | Posted June 13, 2011 at 20:57:58 in reply to Comment 64858

Publicly-funded roads are a subsidy on automobile travel.

Which mainly benefits corporations.

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By SpaceMonkee (anonymous) | Posted June 13, 2011 at 16:36:37

Using the logic presented above, shouldn't cross walks be coin operated?

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By Brandon (registered) | Posted June 13, 2011 at 17:52:11 in reply to Comment 64861

Only if green lights are as well. ;)

How much wear does a pedestrian put on the cross walk?

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By matthewsweet (registered) | Posted June 13, 2011 at 17:57:13

The quicker we dispose of the notion that its all-or-nothing in regards to transportation mode, the better. Automobile ownership, bicycle lanes, pedestrian only zones and light rail transit need not be mutually exclusive. There is room for all and the key is creating a balanced approach wherein the choice is available to use any and all of those modes.

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By Dylan (registered) | Posted June 13, 2011 at 19:02:58

Note that the study also shows that municipalities pay half of the cost of road maintenance but only collect a small fraction of the road-related revenues.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted June 14, 2011 at 00:45:01

The reason we drive so much isn't just about how much money is spent (publicly and privately)) on cars, but how the costs are structured. Driving is in most ways a flat-rate cost. Once you've got the car, driving it doesn't cost much.

If you own a car, you can choose to walk, cycle or bus to work. But while you do that (and pay the associated costs), your car will sit at home costing you money. It will still cost money to buy (and finance), insure, park, and licence. Many of these costs would haunt you for some time even if you sold your car tomorrow. The "marginal cost" of driving, once of you've paid all this, is very low - $0.10-15 per km in gas and a few bucks to park. In town or to many neighbouring cities, this is cheaper than a bus ride - even if you're alone. With four people in your car and $3 all-day parking downtown, you're looking at just a buck each to come in and return from the 'burbs. What would the costs actually look like if you had to pay them all at once, per km? Probably a lot more like cab-fare.

Toll roads help shift the cost to a more per-trip price, which would cut down on driving by car owners. On the other hand, more expenses are the last thing many working families in the area need, so I don't blame people for frowning. Not necessarily a reason not to toll roads, but a damn good one to make sure it's matched with changes (like better transit) which save people money.

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By bigguy1231 (registered) | Posted June 14, 2011 at 12:37:56

Any government that imposes tolls would be committing political suicide, it's as simple as that. Majority opinion rules not the minority views presented on this site.

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By Brandon (registered) | Posted June 14, 2011 at 13:45:25 in reply to Comment 64882

Imagine the poor lemming in the middle in the middle of the group saying "Hey guys, I heard that there was a cliff ahead..."

The crowd around would say "Shut up and keep running."

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By andrewpmk (anonymous) | Posted June 21, 2011 at 21:44:37

"[M]ost [motorists] have no realistic option except to drive to work or go shopping."

Chicken and egg problem. It is best to toll anyway because at least it will encourage people to drive less (by living closer to work for example) even if transit is not a viable option. Most people living and working near the 407 have little option but to drive (bus service is pretty bad around there) but nevertheless there is far less congestion on the 407 than the 401 because of the tolls. If we then apply this toll revenue to improve bus service and build subways/LRT/GO trains, it will incrementally reduce congestion further.

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