Rivers: Tolls may not be fair but they appear to be necessary.

Rivers 100x100By Ray Rivers

December 2, 2016



One day electrically powered vehicles will grace our streets and roadways and the gas pump will be an historical artifact. And as go the gas pumps so too go the gas taxes, which together with license and other road fees currently more than pay for the road infrastructure in the GTA and Hamilton.

EVs (electric vehicles) are still in their infancy in Canada but the automakers have got the memo, thanks to Tesla. And it’s not too early to consider how we should be paying for roads after the gas tax money is gone. As a result, some jurisdictions in the USA have resorted to penalizing EV and hybrid car owners with surcharges on their vehicles – in effect a tax on efficient transportation and thus a tax on the environment.


Will electric vehicles result in less gasoline sales and less in the way of taxes on that gasoline? Is that the real reason behind tolls on highways?

While Ontario subsidizes the purchase of EV’s by up to $14,000, some US states are planning to charge an annual registration fee of up to $200 on these quiet, smokeless vehicles. It’s about fairness they say. Over the years public policy has swung from financing roads through property and income taxes towards user pay. And relying as much as we do on gas taxes, how can it be fair for the F-150 crowd to have to pay for the roads while Tesla owners ride for free.

Already, Oregon is experimenting with a per mile road tax in lieu of the gas tax. An electronic device like your hydro meter would measure your driving and send you a bill. Those west coast states have typically been ahead of the curve in North America – and not co-incidentally they’ve also legalized marijuana there. But the inherent complexities of this proposal make it sound like Cheech and Chong on a bad trip.

So Toronto mayor John Tory is timely in proposing a $2 toll for the Gardiner and Don Valley highways running through the city, that may bring in up to $300 million a year. At that rate it would take twelve years to pay for rehabilitating the Gardiner, but it is a start. And If approved it would still take at least a couple of years before they would have the electronic toll booths in place to start charging.

$2 may be a low ball figure for a city that charges $2 just for an hour of parking on the street, something which causes far more damage to one’s wallet than to the street. And since it can take an hour to crawl along the DVP from one end to the other, sadly the toll would be just like a parking charge.


John Tory arguing then that tolls were nothing but highway robbery.

John Tory has had a change of heart on this matter since he ran for mayor in 2003 – arguing then that tolls were nothing but highway robbery. Of course he has blundered a few times before. There was that negative billing thing when he was with Rogers. Wasn’t he responsible for those disgusting Kim Campbell’s personal attack ads on Mr. Chretien?, And who doesn’t remember the promise to fully fund all private schools.

But he’s got this one figured out now. Though, had he supported David Miller’s road tolls back then, the Gardiner might already have been re-built. Tory used to argue that imposing tolls was unwise since that would drive cars off the Gardiner. He was probably right. But isn’t driving some cars off our congested highways exactly what we really need to do?  Just ask one of those weary commuters stuck in perpetual daily grid-lock.

It’s a tragedy of the common highway. All those drivers trying to get their car on the road spoil it for all those other drivers. The rational economic solution is rationing through the price system. In fact this concept of rationing to avoid congestion is one of the pillars of the highway 407 pricing policy. Or at least, that is the rationale they use to allow them to charge the highest rates – the expensive highway – in North America.


Isn’t driving some cars off our congested highways exactly what we really need to do?

There is no perfect solution. Road tolls involve equity issues related to ability to pay, which can be brutal if you need that highway to get to work – so you can eventually pay the tolls. But flat fees and gas taxes inherently involve somebody subsidizing somebody else’s share of the cost of road building and maintenance. And that’s not fair either.

rivers-on-guitarRay Z Rivers is a songwriter, playwright, author and columnist. Tweet @rayzrivers    He will be performing on Sunday, December 18 at The Pearl Company Arts Centre, 16 Steven St., in Hamilton. The hour-long show of selected Christmas music starts at 2 p.m. Net proceeds will be donated to Mission Services in Hamilton.

Tickets are available on-line (thepearlcompany.ca) or at the door. Admission is $20, $15 for students, seniors and the under-waged. Reserve your seat today, call 905-524-0606.

 Background links:

Tory Tolls –   Tory No Tolls –   Tory Blunders –   Road Tolls Everywhere

407 Policy –      Who Pays for Roads –   Oregon Experiment –   Tragedy of the Commons

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13 comments to Rivers: Tolls may not be fair but they appear to be necessary.

  • CityBiker

    Hamilton is considering road tolls for Redhill and Lincoln Alexander parkways. Tolls would be limited to non residents and commercial truck traffic. Also known as pass through commuters etc that take the shortcut between Brantford and Niagara.
    Time to “drain the swamp” in hamilton too? Or realize that our municipalities are going through growing pains and need to be BOLD to address traffic issues?

    Maybe burlington should consider a toll for non residents using new st? Road diet not required.
    How many non residents signed the petition to end the trial diet?

    • Phillip

      It appears that judging by the comments most are local residents that don’t matter to the cycling lobby, Dennison, or the rest of the swamp–until November, 2018.

  • Thomas Home

    Two points need to be added to the discussion:
    –Toronto and Milton are the lightest-taxed jurisdictions in Ontario. You could describe this as being “cheap” and/or “free-booters” as they progressively under-supply services and then try to suck unwarranted funding from the provincial and federal governments. This tactic of “might-is-right” of course would make all the Trump-ians happy.
    –our current property taxes are out-dated and don’t work (see above). They are a glorified flat-tax that is progressively virulent against seniors and those with a lower income. Matching city revenue generation in a comparative fashion to income taxing is the fair and effective answer.

  • Ray Rivers

    Mr. Williams. Thanks for your comment. I used the same study as you did in your link. But while your number is an accurate figure for all of Ontario, I was referring only to the GTHA….

    “When restricting the analysis to the GTHA, the study finds that drivers contribute more than the cost to build and maintain GTHA roads.”

    And thanks for the excellent point about potential externalities.

  • Stephen White

    Tolls have been placed on many highways in the United States to help defray the costs of bridge, highway and road construction and maintenance. However, in Canada, tolls are a rarity, but the costs to maintain our transportation system are built into the tax system and a portion of that is added to the price of gasoline. So, adding tolls paid for by motorists is actually a form of double taxation. Add into this equation the additional carbon taxes being planned by the Trudeau and Wynne governments and it effectively becomes a multiple hit to already overburdened taxpayers.

    When you look at the incredible waste and mismanagement as evidenced by the Provincial Auditor’s recent report it is hard to condone implementation of tolls in the face of such incredible bureaucratic largesse and outright incompetence. This provincial Liberal government has squandered billions on e-Health, Ornge, cancelled hydro plants, escalating hydro costs that are driving industries out of the province, etc. Until the Wynne government gets their house in order and stops wasting revenue on nonsense such as multi-million dollar, gratuitous “feel good” advertising campaigns then she can’t expect taxpayers to condone mindless cash grabs. As for Tory, he clearly has backtracked on a commitment he made a year ago in which he stated tolls weren’t required.

  • Steve

    “when does it end”

    Get ready for lots more taxes, especially the carbon tax. Canadians will be bled to death, and be forced to fall on our swords, while China and India continue to pump out a 100 times more carbon, and still build coal fired plants. What suckers we are.

  • James

    Our taxes are meant to go towards among other things, maintaining our infrastructure. Road tolls on public highways is double-dipping. I swear the government is trying to drain our pockets like greedy little money vampires, sucking every last penny out of us until we drop. We already give them nearly half our salary right off the top, and now with hydro costs exploding, taxes upon taxes, road tolls, “free” healthcare that is no longer free, abusive unions, wasteful government spending… when does it end? Seriously… when does it end? I haven’t had a pay increase in nearly 5 years!! I HAVE NO MORE TO GIVE!! It just seems that every day gets me one step closer to not being able to afford to live here.

    • Phillip

      James, your observations are a come experience for the silent majority.
      South of the border, ordinary, working Americans were so fed up with the elitist, leftist, PC cancer that was permeating the American economy and society that Trump was elected to drain the swamp in Washington. In 2018, it will be our turn to drain the swamp, first at Queen’s Park and then on
      Brant Street. Local and provincial politicians have marginalized residents and taxpayers for long enough on their “pet” projects–all of which have the end result of impoverishing us.

      • Phillip

        My bad–the comment above should read, “common experience”

      • Chris Ariens

        For just one example of how that’s working out for the American people…


        It’s clear that not only is the swamp going to be drained, it’s going to be completely looted by the moneyed right-wing elite aligned with Trump. Be careful what you wish for and beware of politicians pretending to be populist panderers.

        The culprit is neither the left, nor the right, it’s increased complexity and increased competition. Many of the abuses that the auditor-general has uncovered involve private enterprises cutting corners, being insufficiently monitored and basically stiffing the people. Hydro employees get to bask at the top of the sunshine list because if you want talent, you have to compete with the private sector, where CEOs make 7 or 8 figures. Profits have to continue to increase, because shareholders demand it. When the top of the food chain gets its cut, someone down the line is not getting theirs. Whether it’s us as individuals, or whether its our representatives paying the price, those profits are embededed in our costs at multiple levels. Trickle-up economics at work. These are systemic issues that are not going to be solved by those with power who seek to keep and grow that power.

        Roads are expensive to build and maintain. In 2000, the gas taxes and license fees and the cost of roads in Canada were approximately equal at about $13B. In 2008/09, the last year for which figures are readily available from Stats Canada, the revenues had increased to $15.5B, but the costs increased to $29B. The gas taxes both federal and provincial have been flat for nearly 30 years, and as a result the increasing cost of roads has been more and more borne by the municipalities, on the backs of the property taxpayers (no matter how much or how little they drive).

        The Gardiner and DVP are municipal roads, and on the very same day Mr. Tory announced these tolls, the projected cost of refurbishing the Gardiner jumped by a billion dollars. The options were either to make everyone, including the 2.3 million Toronto residents who don’t use these roads every day pay for them, let the users pay more (tolls), or forego the expense and let the highway crumble. Not an enviable position for any politician to be put in, especially Mr. Tory who’s worked hard to make things easier for the suburban motor vehicle commuter (mainly because he has to fend off the populist Doug Ford wing).

        • philip

          Another leftist rant by the Toronto Star against the financial elite (who would have guessed???). Unfortunately for you, the silent majority (you know those hard working taxpayers who go to work everyday and just want to get on with their lives) are waking up to the elitism and self-entitlement of the left. Trump’s victory was a revulsion against this cancer (“drain the swamp”) as much as it was a victory based on economics.

          What people like you are most afraid of with Donald Trump–and you should be afraid, very afraid, is that he will be successful. Trump is no politician; he can be glib and outrageous, but he is a pragmatist and he will focus on results. The mainstream median is aghast that their leftist filter has been rendered largely irrelevant
          by Trump’s messaging directly to the American people–how quaint, how democratic!

          John Tory needs to get his own fiscal house in order; he has a lot in common with Burlington–no REAL budget process (zero-based budgeting is anathema to such politicians who like to spend on their pet projects and merely tell taxpayers to bend over) and WEAK leadership.

          “Drain the swamp” is coming to Brant Street. This mayor and council have pandered to the consultant and lobby groups long enough. Read the comments to the New Street Petition–the game is up! Local residents and taxpayers are fully aware of how they have been victimized by your lobby group at City Hall. Change is coming in November, 2018!

          A “Deplorable” in South Burlington

  • According to the Conference Board of Canada drivers pay between 59 percent and 77 percent of the total cost of the roads. Other costs such as the cost of health care aggrevated by automobile pollution are totally externalized (one area where EV drivers to some degree, pedestrians and cyclists moreso have less impact.)

    Further reading https://raisethehammer.org/article/1994/conference_board_study:_drivers_do_not_pay_full_cost_of_ontario_roads