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Toronto’s Simple Measure to Cut Traffic and Improve Transit: Toll Highways

1:59 PM EST on December 9, 2016

Tolling Toronto’s Gardiner Expressway and one other highway could help the city function better. Photo: Wikipedia

American elected officials are notoriously skittish about turning freeways into toll roads, but in Canada's biggest city the political stars are aligning to put a price on two major highways.

Toronto Mayor John Tory, facing intense budget pressures, has proposed tolling two urban freeways: the Gardiner Expressway and the Don Valley Parkway. Tory is proposing a $2 flat fee, which would generate some $200 million in net annual revenue. While the political decisions to implement tolls are getting made right now, implementation is not expected until 2024.

As a measure to reduce traffic on the highways -- and the city streets those highways funnel into -- the plan could be better. The tolls would do more to cut traffic congestion if Toronto opted for dynamic pricing that charges drivers more during peak periods. But even if the initial toll is flat, the government could convert it to a sliding scale later on, transportation engineering professor David Levinson told the Globe and Mail.

Transit riders in Toronto just absorbed their sixth fare increase in six years and now cover about 70 percent of transit operating costs in the city. That may help explain why recent polling shows the public is evenly split on the question of tolls, which could eventually help lessen the fare burden on transit riders.

The first need that the toll revenue would address, however, is repairing the Gardiner. (In a shortsighted decision last year, Tory supported keeping the aging Gardiner instead of the less expensive option of replacing it with a surface road.) But in the long run the tolls are also expected to raise revenue to improve transit.

A vote from City Council is expected next week. The tolls will also need approval from the provincial government, and Ontario Premiere Kathleen Wynne has reportedly indicated that she won't stand in the way.

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