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Reality requires road tolls; prepare for the inevitable



June 18, 2008

The mild-mannered suburbanite who fronts Metrolinx, the new provincial agency hired to create a regional transportation network for the good of us all, doesn’t want to alarm his fellow commuters about the agency’s growing affection for road tolls.

“There’s still a lot of runway left before we get to takeoff on this,” Rob MacIsaac told The Globe’s Dr. Gridlock last week.

Fair enough. But what’s the alternative to taking off on this? Crashing through the fence at the end of the runway in flames? Mr. MacIsaac’s image is apt, because it acknowledges what politics forbids him to say - that tolls are inevitable.

Politics require everybody to yap about the proposal for years, bang tables and divide into camps. Reality requires tolls.

Today’s consultations lead directly to tomorrow’s consolations. To the extent that current Metrolinx planning is an exercise in preparing the public for the inevitable, it is valuable work.

The agency’s latest emission, an update on the investment strategy it plans to announce next month, makes a strong case for regional road pricing simply by publishing the numbers. What they show is that expressway tolls half the cost of those charged currently on Highway 407 - 10 cents a kilometre, about what an SUV driver pays in gas - would raise enough to build first-class public transit forever.

What makes tolls doubly attractive is that motorists also stand to benefit, both immediately and in the long term. Our highways today are like Communist supermarkets, with huge lineups for artificially cheap food that is rarely available.

By now, everybody knows there is only one way to rationalize the distribution of a scarce resource: You price it. The lineups disappear and rutabagas suddenly abound.

The economic rationale for tolls would be bombproof even if all the revenue they produced went to build snowmobile trails in Rainy River. But by proposing to contain them within the regional transportation system as a whole, the emerging Metrolinx plan promises long-term relief for motorists and more options for everyone.

It will be said many times before tolls appear that they are no panacea. Almost all the options under consideration require more government subsidy, new “revenue tools” and significant public debt in addition to revenue from tolls. The province’s current MoveOntario 2020 program - no bag o’ shells at $17-billion - is the baseline. Tolls will only be part of any eventual system.

The exciting thing about such measures is that they can’t work outside any kind of system, and simply to think systematically about regional transportation in the Golden Horseshoe is a breakthrough in itself.

The greatest promise today is not just more dollars, but the chance to create a solid plan with the political support and financial resources needed to carry it far into the future.

Planning is the real panacea in the business of building a mobile city.

All the great regional transit systems in the world share one trait, according to U.S. transportation expert Carolyn Konheim. Authorities create long-term plans and stick to them no matter what. “They go on for 25 years, and they actually get implemented,” she said. “That’s the main lesson we have ignored in North America.”

As Metrolinx is demonstrating with its own developing plan, the inescapable utility of road tolls is a good reminder of the need to think clearly - and far into the future - about regional transportation.