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The Toll Route
The past few days have seen a bit of a raging debate about tolls on Toronto's highways. It began when the federal Transport Minister David Collenette suggested major Canadian cities should consider tolls like the congestion pricing scheme introduced in London. Immediately we heard the reaction from His Worship:
Collenette's comments drew swift ridicule from Toronto Mayor Mel Lastman. "This is the dumbest idea I have ever heard in my life," he said.
And, although some city columnists pointed out the advantages of the idea, all the mayoral candidates have renounced it:
Mayoralty candidate John Tory is opposed to tolls because they represent "double taxation" (even though most commuters come from out of town and pay nothing to use city expressways that Torontonians maintain with property taxes exclusively). "We need a new deal, not a new penalty," a Tory spokesman said yesterday. "Tolls are a non-starter," candidate John Nunziata said pithily. "There are other ways to raise money." David Miller might consider tolling, but only "in the absence of a new-deal revenue source," according to his spokesman. Barbara Hall comes a little closer to sitting on the fence: She is not opposed to tolls in principle but considers their application to be "highly problematic."
Wimps! If I was running for mayor, I'd make this the cornerstone of my platform. There aren't many things that the city can do to improve its situation, but this is one of them. As John Barber writes:
With a toll equivalent to bus fare -- a piddling amount to most car commuters, a fraction of the $12 fee drivers spend to enter London -- Toronto could raise about $150-million a year from the two expressways. How's that for a new deal? I'd say it's not bad at all, considering that the city can get that revenue at low cost all by itself, targeting out-of-towners for most of it, without begging any other governments for more tax money. With that kind of new revenue at its disposal, the city could reduce the transit system's ballooning annual operating subsidy to a pittance. Or it could build subway lines wherever it pleased, opening a new station almost every year forever. At the same time, it could boast that it has finally come to grips with road congestion, which would diminish noticeably as a result of the tolls, thus offering real value to the commuters who pay them. Why is this so hard? Why do we expect working Torontonian straphangers to pay $1.90 for a six-block trip but dare not charge affluent out-of-town drivers a nickel to use highways that those same working Torontonians -- all alone -- pay a fortune to maintain every year? The best thing about tolls is that they are not taxes at all; they are fees for a service rendered. No matter how it's sliced, any "new deal" from the province -- at least one good enough to satisfy the gimme crowd -- will raise taxes throughout the province in order to help the city. With tolls, drivers pay directly for use of the roads and benefit directly as a result. They are an economist's dream.
This is a pretty good rationale, but I would actually go farther than this. If I was running for mayor this year, I would propose the following: To sell the Gardiner and Don Valley Expressways to private operators, and use the billions raised to build a family of new subway lines. Highway 407 is worth over $6 billion. If the Gardiner and DVP were sold to a company charging the tolls that the market can bear, the city could raise $10-20 billion, even if the contract required the operator to bury the Gardiner. For those billions, as mayor elected in 2003, I would build subways along Eglinton (from Pearson airport to Don Mills Road), along Sheppard (from the Scarborough Town Centre to Downsview), in a U-shape from Fairview Mall to Eglinton and Weston Road (via Don Mills, and the CN rail route), and the York University extension. This plan is similar to, but not identical to, a plan written about by James Bow on his Transit Toronto website. The benefits would be numerous:If begun this fall, I think the plan could be complete by 2010. Let me know if I have your support!

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