Archived columns and blog posts by Matt Elliott

Tolling the Gardiner and DVP will help solve two of Toronto's biggest challenges

A streetcar heads east on Gerrard St. as vehicle traffic passes on the Don Valley Parkway below.
A streetcar heads east on Gerrard St. as vehicle traffic passes on the Don Valley Parkway below.

One of the challenges that comess with writing about road pricing in Toronto is that we’ve never had great data.

Absent even guesstimate figures on the cost of implementing a road toll system in Toronto — and the potential revenue that’d come from slapping a price on the city’s major arteries — the debate tends to descend into emotional arguments about fairness and the plight of beleaguered drivers.

But at last, with the release of the next meeting's agenda for the city's Public Works and Infrastructure Committee we have our first report that offers real, local data on tolling.

And the data tells a hell of a story, one that includes a revenue boost for city building and quicker commutes for drivers.

Maintenance crews work on the Gardiner Expressway in a 2014 file photo.
Torstar News Service Maintenance crews work on the Gardiner Expressway in a 2014 file photo.

Tolls will help pay for costly highway repair

Looking only at the potential for tolling the Gardiner Expressway and the Don Valley Parkway – both of which are fully owned by the City of Toronto — the report includes several high-level estimates about the cost of toll systems, the potential revenue generated and the impact tolling would have on vehicle traffic.

Let’s start with the first bit. A toll system, which would include cameras, sensors and other gizmos at every on- and off-ramp, would cost Toronto about $1.8 billion over the next 30 years, according to the report.

At first glance, that $1.8-billion figure does give me pause, to the point where I’d love to see an additional study comparing the toll scenario to a scenario that raises similar revenues through something that requires little-to-no additional infrastructure for collection, like an increased gas tax.

But even with the high overhead, the report figures that reasonable tolls would be enough to cover both the cost of the cost of the system and long-term maintenance costs for both highways.

Those maintenance costs aren’t cheap.

While the Don Valley Parkway is a relative bargain, projected to cost taxpayers $200 million over the next 30 years, the Gardiner is a massive money sink. The report estimates the 30-year cost of keeping the lakeside highway standing at $3.8 billion, which includes the cost of implementing the council-approved “hybrid option.”

But a toll of either $1.25 per highway system use or 10 cents per kilometre charged to cars ($2.50 per use or 20 cents per kilometre for trucks) would cover all those costs, plus the price tag of the tolling infrastructure.

This would immediately free the city from the need to scrounge together highway repair money from the property tax base. That money could instead go toward improved transit service, or housing, or the dozen other things the city needs to invest in right now.

But what if the tolls were set even higher? $1.25 per use – which would work out to $2.50 a day for most commuters – is a pretty great deal, especially compared to what transit riders shell out each day to get around.

To that end, the report also suggests what charge would be required to raise enough to cover the 30-year cost of the toll system, while maintaining both highways, in just 10 years.

The result? Tolls would need to be set at either $3.25 per use or 35 cents per kilometre for cars, with proportional increases for trucks. (Fun note: there’s a more-than-likely chance the TTC cash fare gets set at $3.25 next year.)

The annualized revenue difference between the two toll scenarios works out to $380 million. So at the higher toll level, thecity would not only offset the high cost of repairing its highways, it would also open up an entirely new revenue source that generates nearly as much per year as the land transfer tax.

With that kind of annual revenue, projects like the downtown relief line or the remainder of the Transit City LRT plan become much more attainable.

But I haven't even gotten to the best part yet.

Traffic piles up on the Gardiner Expressway at the Yonge St. ramps.
Torstar News Service Traffic piles up on the Gardiner Expressway at the Yonge St. ramps.

Tolls will provide quicker commutes

The report makes it clear that drivers who pony up to use the Gardiner and DVP will get something in return, beyond the knowledge they’re helping support the construction of a better transit system for the entire city.

They’ll also get better commutes.

The report figures that a hypothetical $3 toll on these highways would improve rush hour peak-direction travel times for drivers by 11 per cent on the Gardiner and 16 per cent on the Don Valley Parkway. In real terms, that works out to three saved minutes per direction on the Gardiner and five on the DVP.

Before you jump in to say all this tolling would divert traffic diverts to side streets, save it.

The report did find that at very high levels, highway tolls did result in traffic diverting to other routes at unmanageable rates, but both the 10-year and 30-year payback scenarios predicted a diversion rate of nine per cent on the Gardiner and 12 per cent on the DVP. Some of that would be people who switch from driving to other modes of travel, like transit.

Let’s bottom line it. In this hypothetical scenario – which, again, is very high level analysis and requires more study and plenty of caveats – Toronto could get the revenue it needs to seriously build out the city’s transit system while also improving traffic conditions on its major highways, all by charging highway drivers about the equivalent of a TTC fare when they access a city on-ramp.

It’s a little mind-blowing to think that such a minor thing could solve so many big problems, isn’t it? Sure, road pricing is a touchy subject for a lot of people, but with impacts this big, and data this promising, it’s irresponsible to take tolling off the table.

This post was originally published at on 2015-09-17T00:00:00.000Z

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Matt Elliott

City Hall watcher, columnist and policy wonk in Toronto.
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