Highway 174 Tolls Are Necessary

A little while back a City of Ottawa councillor floated the idea of a road toll on Highway 174, right at the city limits. The idea being people coming into Ottawa aren't paying for the rest of the road through property taxes (which is how we pay for all roads), so that's not fair. I responded to Ken Gray's post about it in a comment. Just posting it here so I have a copy forever, just in case.

June 4, 2013

Councillor Blais should be applauded for having the courage to touch the “third-rail” of politics across Ontario: road pricing.

You regularly excoriate local politicians for wasteful spending so I’m hoping to shift your thinking on Blais’ proposal with some basic economic arguments.

The 417/174 is filled with single-occupant vehicles at rush hour. I have no problem with that – to each their own. If someone wants to dedicate a significant portion of their earnings for car expenses, to then ride solo, that is their choice. I’ve decided to never own a car again, partly for the environment, but more recently because I recognize forgoing a car makes it at least possible to hope I’ll someday save enough for retirement. Maybe. But I digress.

I do have a problem with my ever increasing property tax bill being used to continuously expand the road network – just so we can have enough space for all those single-occupant vehicles.

A modest road toll brings something into the equation that Ottawa’s road networks are sorely lacking: a price signal, something that informs residents there is a cost associated with the resource they are consuming.

Roads are a resource like anything else. We have a supply that is expensive to build and even more expensive to maintain. We have a certain demand – currently dominated by single-occupant vehicles.

The price elasticity of roads is small in the near term but larger in the long term. The day after a modest toll is brought in there would not be much change in demand. People would still drive like they did the day before – but over the long term behaviour would shift.

People are free to choose how they would react. Would some people move? Yes. Would some people stick to driving alone? Certainly. Would two neighbours who already share a lawnmower decide it’s time to share a commute too? Absolutely.

Without building a single extra lane (using a share of my property taxes mind you) we’ve just improved commute times (less congestion), saved a bit of greenhouse-gas-emissions (fewer tonnes per passenger kilometre), and done a good service for Ottawa taxpayers (lower property taxes).

I do not support “big new tax grabs” or other pejoratives for road pricing. I support fairness.

Why should seniors on fixed incomes, who don’t commute anymore, and are struggling to afford rapidly rising property taxes subsidize those who have chosen to live far away from their jobs – and drive there alone?

Why should students or the just-graduated, already suffocating in debt, for whom owning a car or a home is out of reach, subsidize roads for drivers with discretionary spending to spare? And yes, renters pay property taxes too, however indirectly.

For that matter, why should anyone subsidize a driver if they are willing to pay a $5 toll instead of sharing a car with their neighbour? They can make that choice: carpool or pay. If they choose to pay they can afford it. If they are cheap – like me – they’ll find a solution that works for them.

It must be said that for some a toll would be the straw that breaks their back. Too many people live on the edge, and undoubtedly some of them live in Casselman. People on the edge also live in Centretown, Barrhaven, Hintonburg, Elmvale Acres, Gatineau, Vars, and Vanier. You get my point.

We, that’s all taxpayers, have a duty to help those on the edge. But avoiding road tolls is not a good way to do that. Demand for food banks grows year over year, but nobody proposes making grocery stores free. We would never say “the 98% of people who can afford food should get it for free because 2% cannot afford it”. Somehow we do that for roads though. (I’m looking at you, Provincial NDP).

That way of thinking must change.

The alternative is for Ottawa to end up like Toronto is today: a mess of congested roads that destroys air quality, and quality of life in general. Without a price signal, that’s where we’re headed. I want Ottawa to end up somewhere else. Let’s learn from Toronto’s mistakes.

For that, I applaud Councillor Blais for stepping up and grabbing the third-rail.