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For whom the road tolls

For whom the road tolls

In a worthy piece in today’s Globe, John Barber fires the latest salvo in what is fast becoming a hot-button issue: congestion charges for vehicles entering Toronto’s downtown core. Barber argues that — unlike London’s Ken Livingstone and New York’s Michael Bloomberg — Miller is afraid to adopt congestion charges, which are the right thing for the environment. Congestion charges, which are a type of road toll, are an enticing proposition. But they will not happen in Toronto any time soon, for a reason that is getting precious little ink these days.

Miller’s position is that he will not impose congestion charges until Toronto, like London and Manhattan, has speedy and accessible public transit in every corner of the city, with the downtown as the hub connecting the system’s spokes. His argument is sound and wise: he wants to make sure that suburbanites can get downtown without their cars before he imposes a disincentive on driving. Beneath this surface argument lies a much bigger and more worrisome concern: whether or not Toronto’s downtown can remain the dominant employment centre in the GTA.

The comparisons to London and New York are apt. Both these cities are uncontested metropolises—juggernauts of white-collar employment for anyone who lives within their sphere of influence, which is vast. Toronto, by contrast, does not have the same kind of choke-hold on its metropolitan area. In the past 15 years Toronto has lost tens of thousands of jobs to the 905 region. This trend has recently shown signs of reversing, but the reversal is still in its infancy. Congestion charges are a kind of luxury tax, and only an uncontested downtown economy—one that’s easily accessible to everyone, whether by bicycle, on foot, via rail, or behind the wheel—can afford to impose them.

Ergo: if Toronto imposes congestion charges, it could encourage more employers to locate in surrounding cities—an additional disincentive on top of the higher business tax rates that Toronto already charges. Some will say that I’m fear-mongering on behalf of business, but I think the dynamic is real. Toronto competes with Mississauga and Brampton and Nine-o-fiveville for jobs, and for the last 15 years or so it has, on balance, been the loser. This is why congestion charges are a non-starter. It’s also why the Gardiner Expressway will not get torn down: every no-Gardiner scenario entails a reduction in the traffic network’s capacity to get cars (ie. workers) into the city core. It’s also why the Front Street Extension probably has to get built: it will help disperse more traffic into the downtown grid, which makes it the only feasible way of increasing the Gardiner’s traffic capacity. I live in Riverdale and I cycle everywhere and I breathe in the smog and I want a greener city, but I’m under no illusions about the current state of affairs: Toronto, like most mid-sized cities (yes, that’s what it really is), is still in a position where it must pave the way for suburbanites to get downtown.

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