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Gee: Toll stand takes guts

With roads crumbling and transit crying out for investment,
the city needs a serious debate on the issue

By Marcus Gee

Road tolls are considered the third rail of city politics, but that didn’t stop Sarah Thomson from waving an elegant toe yesterday and plunging it straight in.

Ms. Thomson, a publisher and long-shot candidate for mayor, held an outdoor press conference at a downtown pub to unveil her plan for a vast expansion of the city’s subway system. To help pay for it, she would impose peak-hour tolls on the Gardiner and the Don Valley Parkway, raising an estimated $400-million to $500-million a year.

Good on her. Her subway plan may be unrealistic and unaffordable, but Ms. Thomson is the first mayoral candidate to argue openly for tolls. With roads crumbling, greenhouse-gas targets looming and transit crying out for investment, the city needs a serious debate on the issue. Whether it’s going to get one is another question.

When they heard Ms. Thomson’s bold proposal, her rivals recoiled like hikers from a rattlesnake. Rocco Rossi, the former Liberal fundraiser, said it was disappointing that “the first idea is how we can tax people more.” City councillor Giorgio Mammoliti said taxpayers have “had enough of being gouged.”

The supposed front runner, former Ontario Deputy Premier George Smitherman, wasn’t returning calls on the issue. When a Globe reporter asked him about road tolls a few weeks ago, he refused to rule them out, saying he would not succumb to “ideological short-circuiting of necessary conversations.” Now, silence. So much for the vaunted bravery of Furious George.

Even Deputy Mayor Joe Pantalone, a transit advocate and the only mayoral candidate of the municipal left, is against. He says a $5 toll would hurt cultural industries by adding to the price of a ticket at the opera or the ballet when people come downtown for a night out.

It’s easy to understand the politics at work here. Everyone in city politics remembers the hot water David Miller landed in when he mused about tolls during the 2003 election campaign. Candidates like Mr. Rossi are counting on angry, tax-weary suburban voters to put them in City Hall. Angry, tax-weary suburban voters drive cars.

But, by rights, road tolls should be one of the central issues of this election year. A recent study said growing congestion is costing the city billions in lost productivity. Even if the city doesn’t embark on a massive subway expansion, it needs a way to upgrade the TTC and fund the big rollout of light-rapid-transit lines.

With roads crumbling and transit crying out for investment, the city needs a serious debate on the issue

By Marcus Gee

Tolls have been in use for decades in the United States and Europe to help reduce congestion on the highways and pay for road maintenance. They aren’t always unpopular, especially if government uses the revenues to improve transit and keep the roads in shape.

The revenues from the famous congestion charge imposed on downtown drivers by London’s former mayor, Ken Livingston, is dedicated to transportation needs. Once controversial, the charge is now broadly accepted as necessary and positive. In San Diego, part of the toll income from Interstate 15 goes to support an express bus on the same route.

With no incumbent mayor running and a palpable yearning for change in the city, no issue should be taboo in this election campaign - not even road tolls. So why is it that only Ms. Thomson has the guts to put her toe in?