Toronto’s Simple Measure to Cut Traffic and Improve Transit: Toll Highways

"Tolling Toronto's Gardiner Expressway and one other highway could help the city function better. Photo; Wikipedia
"Tolling Toronto's Gardiner Expressway and one other highway could help the city function better. Photo; Wikipedia

American elected officials are notoriously skittish about turning freeways into toll roads, but in Canada’s biggest city the political stars are aligning to put a price on two major highways.

Toronto Mayor John Tory, facing intense budget pressures, has proposed tolling two urban freeways: the Gardiner Expressway and the Don Valley Parkway. Tory is proposing a $2 flat fee, which would generate some $200 million in net annual revenue. While the political decisions to implement tolls are getting made right now, implementation is not expected until 2024.

As a measure to reduce traffic on the highways — and the city streets those highways funnel into — the plan could be better. The tolls would do more to cut traffic congestion if Toronto opted for dynamic pricing that charges drivers more during peak periods. But even if the initial toll is flat, the government could convert it to a sliding scale later on, transportation engineering professor David Levinson told the Globe and Mail.

Transit riders in Toronto just absorbed their sixth fare increase in six years and now cover about 70 percent of transit operating costs in the city. That may help explain why recent polling shows the public is evenly split on the question of tolls, which could eventually help lessen the fare burden on transit riders.

The first need that the toll revenue would address, however, is repairing the Gardiner. (In a shortsighted decision last year, Tory supported keeping the aging Gardiner instead of the less expensive option of replacing it with a surface road.) But in the long run the tolls are also expected to raise revenue to improve transit.

A vote from City Council is expected next week. The tolls will also need approval from the provincial government, and Ontario Premiere Kathleen Wynne has reportedly indicated that she won’t stand in the way.

  • Ray

    Tolling highways allow roadways to be priced based on their true value to the public. The equality of free access is what leads to overuse and eventual degradation of the road’s usefulness. Pricing will shift the value equation from single-occupancy to multi-occupant vehicles. And it would be best to price to the point that congestion is completely removed. The industry is ready to meet the demand with on-demand shuttles as soon as the value equation shifts away from single-occupancy. And we shouldn’t stop with only highway tolling, the entire road network should be priced, since there is value in every roadway. Read this: http://www.its.ucla.edu/for-the-press/traffic-congestion/

  • SingleOccupantDriver

    Thanks. I looked at the link and agree that there will be induced demand with thin vehicles on highways. However, I do think it’s in the public’s interest to provide right-sized cars for single occupants first because so many people prefer to commute that way: http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2013/12/how-america-gets-to-work-in-1-very-long-graph/282349/ There is nothing inherently good about multi-occupant vehicles. For example, side by side seated pedaled vehicles exist: https://www.google.com/search?q=navy+pier+bike+rental&espv=2&biw=1680&bih=984&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiwvouT8PTQAhUIqFQKHXvIC78Q_AUIBygC#imgrc=4DPlxHqTTDsyXM%3A If over 98% of people traveled alone or with one passenger on congested bike paths in side by side seated pedaled vehicles, the first course of business would be to provide single-width single or tandem seated bikes first, then charge a congestion fee once it fully congested.

  • Ray

    A large portion of the population needs to drop their kids off at school on their way to work. So everyone is this situation will always use a 4-7 seater vehicle. Road pricing models could be created based on a number of factors like congestion, vehicle size, environmental damage, etc. This would allow the consumer to choose the right vehicle and/or transit option and will lead to an enormous positive societal impact.

  • SingleOccupantDriver

    “Everyone” and “always” is overstated. I take children to school every day, and the majority of drop-offs have one parent and one child which would work with the current highway-capable single-width car option. As the majority of cars will be self-driving in the future, it’s likely that children will go to school in self-driving cars eventually which will make it possible for families to use one single-width car for all of their school trips. Also, given the success of the current highway-capable two-seater car, nothing precludes four to seven seater cars with single-width design. As demonstrated with the side by side seated bicycle link above, the key element to change to correct wasted road space is giving the option to drive single-width vehicles. I agree that any kind of road pricing vehicle miles traveled taxing should take into consideration many attributes, the most important being the width of the vehicle. However, without offering the singe-width car option, road pricing requires richer people to pay a tax to haul their empty seats on highways and the poor people will do it, too, but, much slower. That’s bad program design, bad planning, undemocratic, and very costly for society.

  • Ray

    Automated vehicles will bring with them congestion pricing, just like uber’s built in congestion pricing. With a little government assistance we will have congestion free roads. If skinny vehicles can make it cheaper to operate a private vehicle, then consumers will buy them. But they will need to compete with other transportation modes that will have a much better value under a fairer unsubsidized pricing system. And even with skinny vehicles, there will be more and more high density areas where the roads will only be able to accomadate pedestrians and bicyclists. Only promoting smaller vehicles ignores the fundamental subsidy flaw with our transportation network.

  • SingleOccupantDriver

    Since highway-capable, single-width electric cars have proven their abilities to shorten commute times by two or three times, (to borrow your phrase) only promoting side by side seated designed cars, buses, biking, and walking ignores the fundamental subsidy flaw of first, middle, and last mile distance, mode transfers, and road width space with our transportation network.

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