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My love-hate relationship with the 407 toll highway

I am ensnared in a love-hate relationship of occasionally epic proportions. Some days, its import sears through me; other days, I give it not a single thought. Like having a spouse who lies about all day and refuses to get a job, I find myself grudgingly supporting a habit I know I should break. I hate Highway 407.

I've paid a few bucks in the Maritimes to cross bridges and passes, and I'm used to it getting into the United States at most crossover points. The 407 ETR (Express Toll Route) in the GTA, however, remains the shining Canadian example of a long-range toll road.

I watched on the news the other day as a man pleaded with the company that the bills he was receiving couldn't possibly be his: the personalized plates in question were still in the packaging in his home, a gift ordered for his daughter who has never owned a car. An annoying charge to fight is one thing; but an unpaid bill with the 407 can result in plate denial come renewal time.

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Kevin Sacks, vice-president of communications for the 407, says incidents like these are extremely rare. I asked the best way for a customer to contest a charge, and he said it's important to contact them right away. In the case of fraud, as those personalized plates, he says to report it to the police.

Hamilton lawyer David Thompson is currently helming a $25-million class-action lawsuit against the corporation, claiming they are continuing to push those who have entered into bankruptcy into payment. "Plate denial is a powerful debt remedy used by the government in cases of non-releasable debts," says Thompson.

He acknowledges the 407's contention that they are an open-access highway with no way to keep people off of it, and therefore need powerful debt collection. "But child support, student loans and fraud survive bankruptcy. To elevate the 407 to that level would mean that corporations like Visa should be lobbying to also survive bankruptcy."

While a lower court ruled in favour of the 407 last year, Thompson will be back for the appeal next month on June 10. Much rides on the outcome; case law is all over the place, according to Thompson, and this outcome will resonate beyond a toll road. Sacks declined to comment on the case, citing the upcoming trial.

I recently misplaced my transponder. That's the little black box you affix to your windshield that is supposed to save you money by instantly charging your account instead of snapping a picture of your plate. That's called a video toll. I pay a transponder lease amount, 3 bucks a month. I could pay annually, but I don't.

The 407 says that you should never move your transponder from vehicle to vehicle. That's all fine and dandy, but I'm usually in a different car every week that I don't own; many people I know would prefer that their transponder was theirs to use as they wish. After all, I conservatively reckon I've been paying that lease fee for probably seven years, which means that piece of plastic has cost me over $250. I called them to request a replacement.

They dinged me $50. Even my equally Machiavellian cellphone company gives me a new phone every few years. Which reminds me: how come I can't just use my smart phone like a transponder? Oh, wait. Because then they couldn't charge me hundreds of dollars for a wee chunk of plastic, and then 50 more if I lose it.

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I usually avoid taking the road, because it is indeed a choice. But with traffic in the GTA ranking in the very worst in North America (I know you're sick of hearing that, but it's true) there are times when even my first choice, to leave lots of extra time, is thwarted.

Toll talk is heating up, and it's important to realize that this is everyone's concern, not just drivers. You don't have a car? You're not too worried if they introduce tolls on other highways? That'll work in your tally of daily outlay for getting around, but watch as everything you consume goes up, because almost everything gets to you in a truck that travels on those highways.

It's a knotted ball of problems containing transit, infrastructure, commuter times and taxes. There is no war on cars, but there does need to be a war on congestion. The fact it should have been tackled in city planning war rooms decades ago reminds you how unsexy a discussion it is. "Build more roads" is a silly answer; that's up there with "bake a bigger pie."

The very real concerns are chunks of the Gardiner Expressway falling down; of a sinkhole, coming soon to a neighbourhood near you; of a burgeoning population driving on roads that reached their peak capacity over a generation ago; of a failure to get individuals out of their cars because decent, viable transit options don't exist.

On the side of every gas pump is a sticker indicating what percentage of the cost of fuel I'm paying goes towards infrastructure, transit, HOV lanes and anything classified as an eligible project under the Gas Tax Fund Agreement. According to its website, Toronto "will receive $1,024,698,448 from the GTF between 2005 and 2014," which is a very big number, but nowhere near enough.

I believe toll roads are inevitable in the GTA. I hope the money raised will indicate a very clear line between what is collected and what is spent, because the crisis we're in now leads me to believe every level of government has been buying beer with the broccoli money.

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Just do me a favour: don't model the process after the 407 ETR.

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About the Author
Drive, She Said columnist

Lorraine Sommerfeld began writing when she was about to turn 40, because it was cheaper than a red convertible. Her weekly column Drive, She Said, while existing in the automobile section, is a nod to those of us who tend to turn the key rather than pop the hood. More


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