Archived columns and blog posts by Matt Elliott

For whom the road's tolled: Non-resident Gardiner toll won't happen, so let's drop it

By: Metro Published on Fri May 22 2015

Once Mayor John Tory and council vote whether to maintain the Gardiner East or replace it with a boulevard, there’s no going back. The decision will impact the city for generations.

So, please, can we not get distracted by arguing about road tolls?

Coun. James Pasternak has been all over the news this week with a proposal to implement tolls on the Gardiner that would, in theory, pay for the cost of maintaining it. But Pasternak’s proposal has a twist: those Gardiner tolls would only be charged to drivers who live outside Toronto.

It’s not a particularly novel idea. Coun. Josh Matlow once proposed the same thing. It’s easy to see the political appeal. Councillors get to look forward-thinking by supporting a revenue-generator while also shielding themselves from reflexive anti-toll rage among their own constituents.

But even if you like the idea in theory, it’s so unlikely to ever happen that it’s not even worth talking about. There are just too many barriers.

First, there’s our old pals at the provincial government. Toronto has not been granted the power to impose road tolls. We can argue about whether that’s fair, given that Toronto is solely on the hook to pay for the cost of maintaining the Gardiner and the Don Valley Parkway, but that’s the reality. Queen’s Park would need to sign off on any plan to charge drivers for using Toronto highways.

And it’s very hard to imagine MPPs supporting a toll plan, especially a scheme that sees tolls levied only on non-residents. Why risk the blowback from residents of suburban ridings? Instead of supporting tolls, provincial politicians would be more likely to again point to the fact that Toronto’s property taxes are the lowest in the GTA.

Then there’s the inherent — and often overlooked — challenges related to the infrastructure and administration needed to collect tolls.

In 2007, the city commissioned a report looking at revenue-generating options. It found that a toll system on the Gardiner and DVP would require $37 million in set-up costs for cameras, transponders and other equipment. Then there are ongoing administrative costs that add up to between 20 and 50 per cent of gross toll revenue.

All told, the report found that a ten cent per kilometre toll on the Gardiner and DVP in peak hours and a five cent per kilometre toll at off-peak would generate about $75 million per year in net revenue for the city.

We can do some back-of-the-envelope math with that figure. If non-residents represent about half of the drivers on Toronto-owned highways — it's a challenge to nail down the exact figure — toll revenue would be just $37.5 million. If the Gardiner were the only highway tolled, revenue would be about half that figure again, $18.75 million — a figure that represents less revenue than a one per cent residential property tax increase.

This not to say road tolls should never happen in Toronto, but the setup costs and administrative overhead need to be considered. Other methods of revenue generation, like a vehicle registration tax or a simple gas tax give more bang for the buck.

Finally — and most importantly — a foolish purchase doesn’t become less foolish just because you’ve come up with a plan to pay for it.

Sure, if tolls somehow got approved by Queen’s Park and Toronto found the money to implement them, they might help to offset the costs of maintaining the east Gardiner. But that still wouldn’t make keeping it a smart decision.

Revitalization opportunity would still be limited. Access to the water’s edge at Keating Channel would still be curtailed. Planning lawyers representing clients with near-complete development applications would still be pretty darn angry.

Finally, Toronto would still be the city that decided to spend money — whether raised via tax or toll — on an expressway connector instead of a mass transit connection.

This post was originally published at on 2015-05-22T00:00:00.000Z

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Matt Elliott

City Hall watcher, columnist and policy wonk in Toronto.
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