With traffic congestion on the rise, many of Canada's highways are in immediate need of overhaul. And, with tax increases as unpopular as ever, road operators in several provinces have turned to tolling to fund the safe, efficient roads that communities need -- and voters expect.
Canada isn't alone in including tolling in a wider toolbox of highway funding options. When the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association (IBTTA) met in Vancouver this month, Canadians gathered with colleagues from around the world to discuss innovative uses for one of the world's oldest methods of funding transportation.
Canadian road operators already know that tolling is regaining favour across North America as long-established highways age and governments add up the cost of refurbishing, expanding or replacing them.
The ingredients for success are the same wherever you go: having users pay for the transportation services they use so that highway operators have the revenues they need to keep their roads safe, efficient and reliable. But this formula for success is set against a backdrop of reluctant policymakers whose constituents may be weary of unwanted new fees or new taxes.
The benefits of tolling are endless: local economies gain from the ability to move people and goods more efficiently and reliably. According to a background paper by the Toronto Region Board of Trade, the Greater Toronto Area already loses $6 billion per year in productivity due to highway gridlock, and its drivers spend about 40 days per year behind the wheel. By putting more money into the system, tolling can free up badly needed dollars to make transit and bike lanes more efficient, thus more popular. Furthermore, by drawing traffic away from taxpayer-funded highways, toll roads relieve congestion, cut tailpipe emissions, and reduce vehicle wear and tear for everyone on the road.
That's the thinking behind the growing network of toll roads in different parts of Canada, and it explains why new highway and bridge projects are likely to rely on tolling.
"I want to get traffic moving again" is the tagline for letsbreakthegridlock.com, the Toronto Board's transportation campaign. "It's time we fixed traffic," states a poster that is circulating online and in Toronto-area subway stations. "But improving regional transportation requires major funding, and we all have a part to play in moving that forward." The board identifies high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes as a funding option that will also reduce congestion on the GTA's roads.
While the Toronto Board of Trade and Metrolinx focus on the need to invest in a stronger economy and a greener future, municipal officials in Montreal have a more immediate concern. A recent report listed 24 bridges, tunnels, and overpasses in critical need of repair, largely because the city budgets only $27-million per year to maintain 600 aging structures that need $50-million per year of work.
But the financing solution is close at hand: the Autoroute 30 ring road from Vaudreuil-Dorion to Châteauguay, Quebec was built under a public-private partnership funded by tolls. And in its wish list for the rebuilt Champlain Bridge, Montreal expressed its support for tolling as part of a $3- to $5-billion project that could accommodate light rail as well as vehicle traffic.
In Nova Scotia, meanwhile, re-decking of the 58-year-old Macdonald Bridge was made possible by a 2011 toll increase. And on the Thousand Islands Bridge between Ontario and Upstate New York, we know that toll revenue is the cornerstone of our ability to deliver safe, reliable mobility.
IBTTA selected Vancouver for its annual meeting because of its rich history of innovative transportation projects over the last decade. By bringing together transportation experts, industry professionals and financing specialists, we are able to learn and grow from the experiences of municipalities and urban planners from around the globe. Vancouver, British Columbia, and Canada have all been leading the way on public-private partnerships. Its highways are as unique and diverse as the communities they serve. While no single funding option is right for every road, tolling is an important and growing part of the solution. Vancouver is at the center of a great learning opportunity for transportation professionals from around the world. And Canada's embrace of tolling makes it a center of innovation in worldwide debate over transportation funding and finance.
Follow Patrick D. Jones on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@IBTTA