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With a few exceptions, such as the private 407 toll highway in Southern Ontario, and a smattering of tolled bridges in various cities, tolling is a rarity in Canada.

Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail

The idea of user pay is hardly new to city dwellers. In Toronto, as in many Canadian cities, user fees help pay for services.

Turn on your tap and a meter records how much water you are consuming. Put out your garbage and the city charges you according to the size of your bin. Rec fees have gone up to cover the cost of swimming lessons, yoga classes and rink rentals. The gas and electric companies charge you for the amount of energy you consume. Use more, pay more.

So it's odd, when you think about it, that one of the most important and expensive of services remains free to the user. Drive Toronto's crumbling Gardiner Expressway, now undergoing vastly expensive repairs, and you pay absolutely nothing. Drive it once a month and you pay nothing. Drive it twice a day and you also pay nothing.

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Motorists have come to view the public roads as a kind of natural bounty, free for all to use without charge or hindrance, like the footpaths of rural England. Unlike those footpaths, of course, the roads and highways of Canadian cities are packed at peak hours, fraying nerves, fouling the air, causing accidents and costing billions in economic losses. They are packed in part because they are free.

As an important new study by Canada's Ecofiscal Commission puts it, "Road use has traditionally been freely available to anyone with a driver's licence, and the open-access nature of roads makes them vulnerable to overcrowding … Free access to roads means that they are overused."

The obvious fix is to put a price on them. Charge money for something and people tend to use it more judiciously. That's one reason user fees have been rising on garbage collection and water: not just to cover the cost of the service, but to get people to put out less trash and use less water.

Motorists in many parts of the world pay to use the roads as matter of course. Drive a motorway in Italy or Spain and you often pay a toll. Enter central London and you pay a congestion fee. The same goes for Stockholm. Singapore has had a sophisticated electronic road-pricing system in place for years.

Canada is miles behind. With a few exceptions, such as the private 407 toll highway in Southern Ontario, and a smattering of tolled bridges in various cities, road tolling is a rarity. And hallelujah to that, most motorists will say.

In fact, it is motorists who suffer most from our national attachment to unpriced roads. They are the ones who sit stewing in traffic jams as others like them flock to use a free service. When Singapore started charging more for driving in peak hours, traffic became more spread out over the day and peak-hour travel speeds rose.

"A growing body of evidence and policy experience suggests that congestion pricing works, particularly as part of a broader policy package," says the Ecofiscal report, We Can't Get There from Here. "When designed well, it leads to reduced traffic congestion and creates net economic benefits both for the economy as a whole and for individual drivers."

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The authors of the report, a group of independent economists, say that the traditional way that Canadian governments attack congestion – building ever more and ever wider roads – doesn't work, at least on its own. The roads just fill up. Though expanding the capacity of the road and transit network can work in the short term and has to be part of the solution, "without addressing the fundamental issue of misaligned incentives around free access to roads, traffic congestion in Canadian cities will only get worse."

To help change those incentives, the report says, Greater Montreal could toll more of the bridges and tunnels leading into the central Island of Montreal. Greater Vancouver could toll more bridges and tunnels, too. Ontario could try tolling lanes on the 400-series highways, perhaps beginning with existing high-occupancy vehicle lanes. The Ontario government says it is considering something just like that.

The report urges the federal government to get involved. In the United States, federal money helped get a successful road-pricing project started in Minnesota, which is using high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes. In Canada, says the report, Ottawa could help fund a series of pilot projects to test which forms of pricing would work best in which cities.

It's a good idea. The Trudeau Liberals made help for cities a big part of their campaign pitch. They say they want to make cities work. They also say they want to be bold. Here is a way to do both. Let's bring some fresh thinking to the tired debate about congestion. Let's put a price on driving our roads.

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