Mayor John Tory has announced a bold plan to move forward with road tolls on the Gardiner Expressway and the Don Valley Expressway (DVP). Road tolls fit the criteria for a fair revenue tool, he said in a speech today. Tolls are not unique, many cities have road tolls, and the cost burden is shared among all who use our roads. Tolls reduce travel time, ease congestion, and encourage use of public transit. The money raised through these tolls would be directly invested in transit expansion and road repairs, promised Mayor Tory.
There has been a growing acknowledgement at City Hall that for a fiscally sustainable Toronto we must look to new taxes and revenue tools. If the City is going to make additional transit investments we are going to have to find a way to pay for it and these tolls will get us some of the way there.
But, the debate is just warming up. The discussion on new municipal taxes so far has revolved around the important fiscal and structural issues with the budget, and the ability of new taxing options to help us build a healthy city. The significant public health impacts of some of the revenue tools contemplated have received little discussion by comparison. In our recent report on health supporting revenue tools we highlight a number of tools available to the City of Toronto that have the power to improve public health and health equity and highway tolls are among them.
Air pollution from traffic has serious health impacts for all Torontonians. Toronto Public Health estimates that air pollution due to vehicle emissions causes 280 premature deaths and 1,090 extra hospitalizations in Toronto each year. The connections between vehicle emissions and health are well understood. Vehicle emissions contribute to poor urban air quality and are associated with a number of medical complications such as the development of asthma, heart disease, and cancer. Exhaust contains some harmful pollutants such as carbon monoxide, nitrous oxides, particulate matter, volatile organic compounds, ground level ozone, and unburnt hydrocarbons. Cars and trucks are the single largest local source of air pollution in Toronto, accounting for just over half of local air pollution. Slow-moving congested traffic with frequent braking and acceleration has relatively high emissions rates. Currently, these health and environmental costs of private vehicle use are not fully included in the costs of driving. Tolling the Gardiner and DVP would allow us to properly price these harmful costs, benefitting commuting times, congestion, and the local air environment.
Tolls will work best and be more equitable if they are employed in conjunction with other mechanisms for decreasing downtown traffic, like improving public transit, making the TTC a more attractive alternative to driving. A dedicated transit fund is a natural fit to be the beneficiary of road pricing revenues.
The details of how these tolls would be structured are important. It is crucial we get this right. For example, tolls that vary depending on traffic and time of day, like rush hour, could produce the largest positive effects. But there are a number of options for how such a system could be set up and equity needs to be a consideration when setting up any new program. Road tolls that improve transit by making it more affordable and accessible is the right step toward a healthier, more livable city for all.