So Toronto needs to find $861 million to pay for critical infrastructure repairs and upgrades and has a projected $1.6 billion capital budget that will, in Mayor Miller’s words, “protect and create” 35,000 jobs.
That’s a lot of loot, but as I wrote last week, it would be folly to sell off public assets during these times of fiscal misery just to raise a few clams. A majority of City Council recently nixed selling off the Toronto Parking Authority or chunks of Toronto Hydro to pay for infrastructure costs. Prudent and wise.
A few years ago, a congestion charge, similar to the one in London (UK), was floated as a way to raise revenue for the city while discouraging downtown traffic gridlock. I think the London model is worth considering. Let’s look at the particulars.
If one wishes to travel in the zone between 7 am and 6 pm, the cost is currently £8. Some vehicles, most obviously police cars and fire engines, are exempt from paying the fee. But so are taxis and alternative fuel vehicles.
In 2003, the organization responsible for the charge, Transport for London (TfL), found that shortly after the fee was instituted, traffic was reduced in the zone by 20%.
Of course, there have been some reported problems. For example, shops and businesses say they were/are affected by the decreased vehicular traffic (and increased costs to transport goods into the zone) and therefore fewer patrons. But these are things we can learn from and seek to remedy before implementing our own charge.
Back to the revenue side of things. In the TfL Annual Report for 2006/2007, revenue from the congestion charge was £252. When factoring in operational costs, the net income was £89. However, if the charge’s raison d’être is to reduce traffic, you would expect revenue to fall over time.
But if Toronto is looking for some quick(ish) cash, a congestion charge might make sense. And the benefits – reduced traffic, cleaner air, fewer accidents, a more pedestrian-friendly downtown, greater investment in public transportation, and so on – will have tremendous long-term benefits for the city. Much better outcomes than selling off public assets to make some short-term coin.
Finally, many in the 905 communities use Toronto roads (see the parking lot that is the Don Valley Parkway during rush hour; full of cars and trucks headed to regions north and east) but don’t pay a cent for maintenance and repair. I’ll wager that the voices that will scream the loudest about a congestion charge won’t be Torontonians but commuters from Whitby, Ajax, Markham, Newmarket, Aurora, etc – people who don’t pay property taxes but also don’t elect our city council.
Let ‘em scream.