Rivers: economist in him wants road tolls; he is looking for a politician to lead that charge..

Rivers 100x100By Ray Rivers

August 29th, 2019



There is only one way to describe the experience of driving back from northern Ontario on a long Ontario weekend.

Overwhelming traffic and grid lock! Much like the rest of the free highways around the province, and the GTA in particular most days.

HOT lanes

Pay a fee and you can ride in that left hand lane.

So the economist in me wants to cry out road tolls. That’s right. Not only would the cost of tolls ration demand, but the tolls would also raise much needed cash for governments all drowning in deficit financing. That does mean that rich folks could afford to take the highway more often than the poor – and unless there are reasonable options to driving that will get the equity folks all upset.

In fact everyone seems to get upset. Nobody likes toll roads, even if, like the 407, they are relatively painless – get a transponder and the cost goes on your monthly visa bill. And talk about success, that highway is now worth over $30 billion, ten times the value Mike Harris got for it twenty years ago.

When Toronto’s city council wanted to impose some road tolls to help with city finances the Liberal provincial government feared a public backlash in the upcoming election, so nixed it. As it turns out that would hardly have hurt them in their election fortunes.

weekend traffic

Weekend traffic

In fact only the Green Party has had the courage to advocate road tolls. The other parties would no more dare to promise tolls, than they would photo radar or another long gun registry. The Wynne Liberals did, however, initiate tolls for driver-only cars using high occupancy lanes (HOV) – thus making them high occupancy or toll (HOT) lanes.

So what are our federal politicians promising to do about cars and congestion as we head to the polls in October to vote for them? The Harper Conservatives had launched a national multi-government infrastructure program as the centre piece of their effort to pull Canada out of the 2008 recession. That effort has been criticized for leaving too much money on the table – more ‘much-ado’ than actually ‘doing’.

As part of their 2015 election campaign the Trudeau Liberals had promised a massive nearly $200 billion, 10 year infrastructure program – increasing Canada’s infrastructure by roughly 20%. But like the Tories before them, they have found it difficult to spend as planned. The money needs to be initiated through application from the responsible jurisdictions and that takes two or more to tango.

One might recall the squabble between the Premier and the PM over the Bombardier transit car layoffs in Thunder Bay. It turns out that Mr. Ford had dropped the ball and failed to apply for the infrastructure money which might have kept the company and its employees working.

construction workers

Tolls would pay for infrastructure – which would create jobs.

Infrastructure investment is credited with creating over 547,000 jobs in 2017 alone. And job creation was the primary motivation behind the Liberal infrastructure program. Though fewer jobs were actually created than planned, it all helped move Canada to a four decade low rate of unemployment, and away from impending recession as Trudeau came to power.

Roads are high on the list for funding, getting almost a quarter of all that infrastructure money. Of course we can all see that money at work as we navigate our way through construction season. But you don’t have to be in a corn field in Iowa to know that if you build it they will come – no sooner do we finish a new road then it is congested with cars again.

There are an ever increasing number of trucks on the road and some of the blame goes to the wasteful industrial practice of just-in-time parts delivery, where trucks essentially become warehouses on wheels. Then there is the new trend of on-line shopping with free truck delivery to your door.

Bernier immigrant sign

No immigration – no traffic congestion.

And where do all the cars come from? On going urban sprawl necessitates car ownership and private vehicle commuting. Maxime Bernier would blame congestion on too much immigration. But nobody is listening to him, preferring to label him and his party as racists and keeping that party at the bottom of the polls.

Between 2011 and 2016, almost 30 per cent of immigrants to this country, some 356,930 people, settled in the Toronto census area. Even if only one in four acquired and drives a car that is still almost a hundred thousand cars we’ve added to Toronto area roads during those Harper/Trudeau years.

Elections are a perfect time for trying out new ideas. Kathleen Wynne promised to build some long needed high speed rail in southern Ontario had she won the last election. It is not clear how many drivers would have left their cars at home and shaved a four-plus-hour commute in rush hour down to 73 minutes – but at least they would have been given the option.

The federal government has played a huge role in facilitating the development of transportation in this country, the railways and highways and even pipelines. Isn’t it time for one of the political leaders to come out swinging with a better idea about resolving our road congestion?

Rivers hand to faceRay Rivers writes regularly on both federal and provincial politics, applying his more than 25 years as a federal bureaucrat to his thinking.  Rivers was once a candidate for provincial office in Burlington.  He was the founder of the Burlington citizen committee on sustainability at a time when climate warming was a hotly debated subject.   Ray has a post graduate degree in economics that he earned at the University of Ottawa.  Tweet @rayzrivers


Background links:

National Infrastructure –    More Infrastructure –    Even More Infrastructure –    Free Highways

Canadian Immigration –    Toronto Immigration –    High Speed Rail

Return to the Front page
Print Friendly, PDF & Email

6 comments to Rivers: economist in him wants road tolls; he is looking for a politician to lead that charge..

  • Steve

    The 407 is painless? Yeah, if you’re well off. It’s darn expensive to use that road as a daily avenue. The “private” owners of that highway have figured out with high toll rates, they can make the same money, but with a lot less wear and tear on their product. Meanwhile, most of the taxpayers that built it can’t use it. It was a big mistake to sell that highway.

  • Stephen White

    From a public policy perspective we should be directing new immigrants away from the GTA and major population centres towards outlying communities, many of which have not shared in the country’s so-called “economic recovery”, and many of which are dying or will be experiencing significant population decline over the next 50 years (BTW…just tune in CBC’s show “Still Standing” hosted by Johnny Harris to see the communities he has visited and the economic and demographic challenges they face).

    We are funnelling billions into building an elaborate, complex infrastructure to shoe horn millions of more people moving into Toronto and the GTA. Toronto is already bursting at the seams. Gridlock is everywhere. The local infrastructure which was never designed to handle this many people, is deteriorating sharply, and the negative impact on the environment is overwhelming.

    Road tolls are not the answer. Canadians are already taxed to the max, and putting an additional charge on commuters, sales people, delivery people, etc., will only result in those expenses being passed onto overburdened consumers in the form of higher costs. Who will bear the brunt of those additional expenses? The poor, the elderly, and those least well-positioned to absorb them.

    If governments want to increase revenue then change the tax system to incentivize desired behaviours and penalize those who pollute, drive oversized gas-guzzling vehicles, or engage in nefarious crimes and criminal activities, particularly corporate crimes (i.e. SNC-Lavalin). As for gridlock, do away with those ridiculous HOV lanes on the QEW which are seldom used anyway, synchronize traffic lights as exists in Mississauga but apparently not in Burlington (hint, hint, Madam Mayor!), and get commercial vehicles off the major highways during weekday rush hours (which would also ensure that truck drivers get the mandated rest they need). In short, align public policy with desired outcomes rather than looking for stop-gap measures that are at best a short-term solution to a much bigger problem.

    • Phillip Wooster

      Stephen, I have to agree with your observations regarding the gridlock problem. I often drive from Burlington to Trafalgar Road at 7 to 7:30 am; the HOV lanes are not only underutilized but they contribute to gridlock on the other 3 lanes as cars cut across those 3 lanes to either enter or exit the QEW. On top of which, I hardly see any vehicles that would represent “car-pooling”; I do see a number of smaller commercial vehicles, taxis, buses. Further, the commercial truck traffic is a real headache–along with my trips to Oakville, six times a year I visit Sunnybrook and have to take the 403-401. The problem is the same at rush hour, trucks congest the two right lanes (this can be 3 or 4 lanes on the 401) and cause further congestion as they cause cars to frequently shift lanes to get around them. I would legislate them to the right lane only during morning and evening rush hours.

  • Hans Jacobs

    Unless/until public transportation systems are capable of much better performance than they are at present, including good alternatives to private car use, road tolls would penalize our less well off citizens disproportionally, similar to a regressive tax. I would not support that.

    There may be other ways to reduce traffic congestion; e.g., many vehicles that use the roads are much bigger than they need to be (it is rare to see more than two people in a car) and therefore occupy more road space than necessary. Perhaps charging more for licences for larger/heavier cars (the same way we used to pay more for higher horsepower cars in the ’60s) could provide an incentive to replace these oversized vehicles with smaller ones.

  • We face similar problems in Atlanta and are increasingly taking the toll road route. I would be in favor of this if a substantial portion of the tolls were put into an account for the expansion of light rail. As the suburbs expand in population, and drivers heading into the city, there is rapidly diminishing space for parking. And, the parking is very expensive when you can find it. People must be weaned form their over dependence on cars.

  • This article seems to be implying (unfairly in my opinion) that immigrants are the cause of traffic gridlock. How about balancing that by stating how many non-immigrants have moved to the GTA (and beyond) – those commuters are almost certain to have more than one car in the family.