Toronto, the Gardiner tolls for thee

On December 13, 2016, Toronto City Council voted 32-9 (after a 12-hour debate) to explore a plan for tolls on highways that enter metropolitan Toronto. This includes the Gardiner Expressway which bisects the city west/east along the lake and the Don Valley Expressway which runs along the Don River north to the 404. While drivers who use these roads are in general against tolls of any kind the city is facing difficult financial choices. According to reports the city is facing a $100 million deficit for the 2017 operating budget. While tolls will still have to be approved by the provincial government the plan is to implement a $2 toll for use of the Gardiner and the Don Valley Expressway.

Gardiner tolls

Toronto’s Gardiner Expressway

Canadians who drive south through Eastern Seaboard States are aware that while tolls can be a nuisance they help bring in money for much-needed infrastructure maintenance. While they can be a pain in the wallet they are an important tool to help address revenue shortfalls. According to a report generated by the city, a $2 toll on the Gardiner and the Don Valley Expressway could bring in over $200 million each year. This includes a one-time start-up expense and an operating budget of $70 million per year. Revenues like this are important tools for a city that is constantly growing and needing to maintain and develop new infrastructure.

Cars and roads have for too long been silently subsidized by government coffers. In the post-war years it was taken for granted that governments developed roads and highways to encourage access and growth. The cost for development and maintenance came out of provincial and federal coffers.

However, in the 1990s Mike Harris and his Tories defunded provincial highways that ran through Toronto, downloading the maintenance to the city without appropriate revenues to finance repairs and upkeep. This was part of his amalgamation that left Toronto struggling for decades to pay for services that previously were managed by the province (including social services, roads and poverty reduction). This has meant that city coffers have had to struggle with outdated infrastructure that was originally created and operated by the province. At the same time policing of these highways was also downloaded to the city. Before Harris, policing was carried out by the OPP; after the Tory download it fell to the City of Toronto further cutting into already tight budgets.

Anyone who drives on or under the Gardiner knows it is an expressway that needs attention. Because it was built back in the 1950s with an estimated life span of 30 years it has required constant repair and maintenance. It also sees use that was never imagined when it was constructed. City engineers have been able to extend the life of the structure with much-needed reinforcement but this requires constant capital, including a repair backlog estimated at $625 million dollars.

Critics argue that tolls will affect poor and marginalized communities using these roads. While this is true we need to ensure that those who use the roads should pay for their upkeep. At the same time downloading the cost of operation and maintenance to those who drive on expressways frees up existing capital that can be used to help improve and develop public transportation. Any plan for tolls must include plans for more capital investment in public transportation.

The money raised from tolls puts the burden back on those who use them. It reminds drivers of the cost of driving cars and using highways removing the idea that driving on highways is free. As we become more environmentally conscious it is important that each of us understands how the choices we make on a daily basis impacts our environment and the environment we leave our children.

Those who drive vehicles on public roads should shoulder some of the financial burden for maintaining those roadways. After all those who use public transportation like the TTC pay for their daily use through transit fares every time they board a bus, subway or streetcar. Just like those who live on the Toronto Islands pay for a ferry ride every time they take the ferry from Toronto to the Islands. The question is: Why should drivers get what is in essence a free ride?

I know the idea is unpopular but for the sake of our future we need to use all the funding tools we have at our disposal. Expressway tolls are only one revenue tool to help the city address the fact that it is growing at an exponential rate. New condos are being built all over the city and every day more people arrive taxing already dated infrastructure. To ensure that the city can keep pace with growth we need to use every fiscal tool at our disposal so that we will continue to have a city that is accessible and liveable for all.

— Chris Moise