In the early 1950s, Toronto mayor Allan Lamport came out against the building of an expressway along the city's lakeshore. Or more precisely, Lamport opposed the idea of the city – and its taxpayers – taking on the expense of constructing, running and maintaining the highway. He couldn't see why this was a job for taxpayers; he thought it should be a toll road, built and operated by private investors, charging drivers a fee each time they used it.
Suburban politicians, not surprisingly, saw things differently. Ditto the province. They didn't want a highway paid for by the people using it, via tolls; they wanted it to be paid for by other people, via taxes – otherwise known as a "free" road. As a result, a "free" highway was built, with provincial taxpayers subsidizing construction and Toronto taxpayers saddled with upkeep costs for all eternity.
That highway is the Gardiner Expressway.
On Thursday, Toronto's current mayor, John Tory, called for city taxpayers to be relieved of the burden of subsidizing a free Gardiner. Instead, he wants to turn it into a toll road. He aims to do the same with the Don Valley Parkway. It is also "free" – a.k.a. paid for by Toronto taxpayers – and used by tens of thousands of commuters a day. A high percentage of them don't live in or pay taxes to Toronto.
Mr. Tory is right. Of course these should be toll roads.
Yes, it's true that the idea of tolls is being raised now because Toronto is facing an ever-widening gap between spending and revenues. Necessity is the mother of invention, or in this case, rediscovery.
And yes, Toronto has made and continues to make other dumb, expensive transit choices – hello, Scarborough subway – saddling taxpayers with other dumb, unnecessary costs.
And yes, the city does, strictly speaking, have the means to continue subsidizing drivers on the Gardiner and the DVP. After all, the city could always raise property taxes. Or it could free up funds for roads by reducing subway and bus service, or raising fares – as it has effectively been doing for years. It could cut, say, the library budget, or close hockey rinks, or delay repairs to social housing, in order to give drivers a free ride. Yes, it could continue to operate that way.
But it shouldn't. Governing is about choosing, because resources – tax dollars – are finite. Every dollar spent somewhere can't be spent somewhere else. "Free" highways cost billions.
And there is no logical reason why tax dollars should be used to make highways free. It doesn't make sense for the environment, but even if the greenhouse gas problem didn't exist, it wouldn't compute in terms of economics or public finance. A well-designed toll system – with electronic tolling and congestion pricing – will reduce traffic, while transferring more of the cost of driving to drivers.
If we didn't already have free highways, would anyone propose them? The idea is as crazy as asking taxpayers to shell out for travellers' airline tickets, or using tax dollars to subsidize free, unlimited phone service. But free highways (and bridges and roads) are the status quo. And nobody likes it when you muck with a comfortable status quo, particularly its beneficiaries. Drivers are about to lose their free ride, and they will scream.
Rival politicians are going to attack Mr. Tory for proposing tolls. He won't be surprised: A decade ago, the shoe was on the other foot, and he was the one mocking a previous mayor's toll plans. And on Thursday, Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown described tolling the DVP and Gardiner as a "bad idea" that would "make life more unaffordable in Ontario," by making people "pay for infrastructure they've already paid for."
In the next election, opponents will surely accuse Mr. Tory of sticking the taxman's hand into your pocket, promoting big government and waging what Rob Ford memorably called "The War on the Car." Mr. Ford got a lot of mileage out of that last one.
But the idea that drivers paying to use a road is "big government," whereas taxpayers subsidizing drivers is "small government," is a logical construction that needs some work.
Our only criticism of Mr. Tory's plan is that it's too modest. The city and province shouldn't just toll the DVP and the Gardiner. They should toll the other highways, and privatize them. Get government out of the crazy business it now finds itself in – where a taxpayer subsidy that lowers public transit fares is correctly called a "subsidy," but a taxpayer subsidy allowing drivers to pay nothing each time they drive is a God-given right.
Mr. Tory has logic and economics on his side. Whether he is about to unleash a populist backlash is another story. And that, dear voters, is up to you.
Changing the status quo won't be easy. Consider this insight from behavioural economics: The pain of a financial loss tends to be felt more intensely than the pleasure of a financial gain. And Mr. Tory's tolling plan promises uncertain gains for transit riders, eventually, while delivering certain pain to drivers, daily, and soon.
Years from now, Toronto Transit Commission service may be somewhat better than it would have been without the extra funding from tolls. Maybe. And TTC fares could end up increasing by less than they would have, though that counterfactual will be impossible to prove. The only thing certain about the TTC riders' pleasure, in other words, is that it is going to be distant and uncertain.
But drivers on the Gardiner and the DVP, who have long cruised for free, could soon be paying – day after day after day. For them, the pain will be acutely felt.
Drivers have no special claim on everyone else's taxes. But when taxpayers start asking them to pay – instead of giving them free money, as has been the norm for decades – some drivers will mistakenly see themselves as the victims of an injustice. They are not. Road tolls were the way to go six decades ago. Six decades later, they're once again the way forward.