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.
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