I’d pay tolls to drive on the Gardiner—but only if everyone else does, too

I’d pay tolls to drive on the Gardiner—but only if everyone else does, too

(Image: Gary J. Wood/Flickr)

I’ve already argued in favour of the hybrid option for the Gardiner Expressway, which would keep the eastern section of the elevated highway standing, but change the locations of off-ramps to free up land for other uses. The mayor agrees with me, as do many others. One of the most prominent obstacles to the hybrid proposal is the price tag: it would cost $400 million more, over its 100-year lifespan, than simply demolishing the Gardiner east of Jarvis.

So now the conversation has turned, as it does every decade or so, to tolls. Toronto owns the Gardiner Expressway outright, and the Don Valley Parkway too, meaning it has to foot the bills for their upkeep. Tolls would allow the city to collect direct revenues from the motorists who use those highways.

But tolls, at least in Toronto’s eternal debates about them, are more than just user fees. They are a means of enlarging Toronto’s revenue rolls beyond its own residents, which is a principle Toronto has long dreamed of enacting. Last week councillor James Pasternak laid the gambit bare when he proposed that tolls be levied exclusively on motorists who live outside Toronto, while residents would get a free pass.

Let me lay my cards on the table. I don’t live in Toronto; I live a 90-minute drive away, in Peterborough. Toronto is where I earn my livelihood, and I travel to the city regularly. My routine fluctuates, but in recent months I am frequently in the city twice a week. Though I typically travel on GO Transit (I drive to Whitby Station and ride from there), I also drive fairly often, and when I do, the DVP and the Gardiner are staples of my itinerary. I also have family in south Etobicoke, which makes the DVP and the Gardiner an essential part of that trajectory.

Simply put, I am among those non-Toronto residents who depend upon the Gardiner and the DVP for both work and life. Would I pay a toll to drive on them? The short answer is yes I would.

Let’s begin the long answer with the wonkish rationale: tolls can make for sound economic, transportation and environmental policy all rolled into one. Economically, motorists should pay for the infrastructure they use, particularly for express travel corridors they don’t share with other modes of travel. And tolls can help alleviate gridlock by encouraging people to use alternative modes of transport, which would have many environmental benefits, fewer emissions chief among them. I’d certainly be one of those people: if Toronto tolled its highways I’d ride the GO more than I already do (especially if the TTC fully integrates the Presto fare card).

More to the point, tolls are just not that big a deal anymore. At least they shouldn’t be, because this notion that they are politically toxic no longer fits with the lived experience of drivers in the region. Motorists make over 350,000 trips on the 407 every workday. The high-occupancy lanes on the 400-series highways are a kind of non-currency toll: those who drive alone, stuck in heavier traffic as the carpoolers zip past, pay not with money but with time. And with its ongoing construction slowing traffic to a near-halt at all times of day, the Gardiner is free only in a fool’s imagination. I love many things about the Gardiner—its architecture, its view, its utility—but in its current state, believe me, every drive on that infernal road exacts a toll. Like every GTA motorist, I love driving the 407 and hate driving the Gardiner, and that should be the whole story right there. Tolls can be a force for good.

Alas, it’s not the whole story. The underlying bone of contention isn’t tolls but residential property tax rates. Toronto’s property tax rates have long been among the lowest in the GTA, and to those of us who live outside the city (and who both depend upon and contribute to its economy), the Gardiner is the emblem of Toronto’s irresponsibility. On Metro Morning, Councillor Pasternak had the temerity to say that “Torontonians are already paying their fair share.” It’s plainly obvious they are not. If you use surrounding municipalities as a benchmark, there’s plenty of room for a property tax increase in Toronto to pay for road maintenance. Or social housing repairs, or transit expansion, or any of Toronto’s other urgently needed civic investments.

This is why Pasternak’s proposal stinks: it’s really just a means of subsidizing Toronto’s low tax rates, and on behalf of all non-Toronto residents I call bullshit. Worse still is the fact that the idea essentially abandons the policy tenets of road pricing. If getting people out of their cars produces social and environmental benefits, then surely it applies to all people and all cars. The toll-the-outsiders proposal is an Orwellian nightmare: apparently some drivers are more equal than others.

Mind you, if Toronto tolled its highways for all drivers, including its own residents, then everyone else would be left with little basis for complaint. Of course they’d grumble, but if all highway users are charged, and if the revenues are dedicated to the maintenance of the highways, then how Toronto sets its property tax rate once again becomes no one else’s business. Motorists, no matter where they lived, would pay the toll and enjoy the benefits of better-maintained highways in the city. And Toronto residents could continue to underinvest in their other public goods, or not, as they so wished. Hopefully not.