sound off – ontario highways, pay for use?

Hwy 401 at Montreal Rd circa 1965?  Notice how little traffic there is

Hwy 401 at Montreal Rd circa 1965? Notice how little traffic there is....

Anyone who has travelled the 400 series of highways in Ontario, will have noticed both the substantial rise in commercial truck traffic and the near simultaneous degradation of the highway infrastructure itself.  A while ago I hummed and hawed about whether it was time to consider usage charges or tolls on our highways.  Usage charges, sometimes known as congestion charges, provide  some significant benefits, (1) primarily by ensuring that those who use the roads the most pay for the wear and tear (2) it prices in what economists refer to as externalities into the total cost of ownership of the road, and (3) depending upon the structure of the charges, it can influence the conditions of use, particularly by encouraging certain types of traffic to use the road at periods of lower demand.   Two recent activities prompted me to revisit the idea – the ongoing widening of the 401 between Sydenham Road and Hwy 15 (and eventually to Joyceville Road), and a visit to Germany and the Netherlands. 

The Netherlands highway system provides a useful point of comparison to the highway network in southern Ontario.  While there are about 17million dutch citizens the national highway system must support much more traffic than the residents could produce on their own, namely because a not insignificant amount of long haul truck traffic enters the Netherlands from central and eastern europe on its way to the North Sea ports.   Similarly highway 401 hosts a considerable amount of US truck traffic transiting the province seeking to avoid tolls along the New York Turnpike and similar toll roads in eastern USA.  

The effects of truck traffic are manifested in at least two visible ways (1) the disruption to traffic flow as one heavy rig attempts to slowly overtake another, and (2) the damage to the road surface from so many trucks travelling along the route.   The problem is particularly acute in our neck of the woods as most of the 401 from Port Coburg east to the Quebec border is only two lanes in each direction. Thus overtaking rigs (invariably approaching a hill)  cause bunching or an accordion like effect of passenger vehicles behind, and likely contribute to accidents as not every passing manoeuvre is executed safely.  The follow on effect is that once the pass is complete, a chain of automobiles speeds up, attempting to regain ‘lost’ time spent at the back of the queue introducing more opportunities for accidents, not to mention an increase in pollution.   Secondly it is commercial truck traffic with high axle loads which causes the most damage to our highway system and for which Ontario taxpayers must foot the bill. 

What to do about it then?   Short of tearing up the entire 400 series to build a decent roadbed,  I suppose one could be draconian and introduce useage charges for every vehicle regardless of type or use, however I don’t think it would be politically palatable, and there are ways to address the costs of infrastructure repair without alienating the voting public.  Specifically there are a couple of measures which I think could be adopted from abroad which would produce immediate safety effects and provide the treasury with funds with which to repair our highway infrastructure. 

First:  impose restraints on overtaking activity of all class A and B commercial trucks during daylight hours.   This will have the effect of improving safety as these types of trucks would be penalised for overtaking during the period of high passenger vehicle use.    This has been implemented successfully in the Netherlands, particularly on the three lane dual carriageways.  In many cases the outermost lane is demarcated from the middle and innermost lanes by a solid line – or as the Netherlands highway code states in part:

76b.  if the line divides two traffic lanes or paths with traffic flowing in one direction only: Drivers may not cross the line unless it is a double line and the line next to the driver is a broken line.

 At highway exits the lane becomes a traffic blending zone for several hundred metres prior to and after the junction.

overhead toll gantry - german autobahn

overhead toll gantry - german autobahn

Second begin to address the externalities of road use by introducing truck distance based tolling for all commercial truck and rental vehicle traffic using provincial highways.    Trucks cause the most damage to the roadbed, they occupy the most space and these costs should be borne by the transport companies.   The cost of collection can be minimal especially if a transponder based toll collection system is implemented as is the case in Germany.    Currently trucks weighing over 12 tonnes pay 16 cents per kilometre to use the autobahn network.    I am not convinced that a fixed toll rate is preferable in the Canadian context, perhaps it might be better to offer sliding toll scale dependant upon the time of use.  Overhead gantries equipped with transponder receivers and cameras can be established at intervals along the highway system.    The objectives of such a commercial truck toll scheme could be to ensure that the  originators of road demand are allowed opportunity to efficiently manage their resources – particularly via differential toll rates based on time of use and so on.  Similarly it could create an incentive to change the modal split (rail / sea / road / air) for freight, essentially pricing in the true cost of road transport.

Thirdly, I like the casual use method adopted by both Austria and Switzerland. In those two countries, each with small population / tax base and finding themselves as convient transit routes both north to south and additionally in Austria’s case also east to west, all visitors entering on the autobahn system are required to purchase and display a road use ‘vignette’ sticker. This ensures that tourists and other transient travellers who otherwise would not bear any of the costs of highway repair resulting from their activities are assessed a small portion of the upkeep. In an Ontairo context, it need not be onerous – perhaps assessed at something like five dollars on rental vehicles and non Canadian plated automobiles.

At any rate, I am in favour of some form of usage charge.   What do you think?  Am I smoking dope on this?  On the right track but not far enough along?  Sound off…….
Essential ReadingStreet Smart:  Competition, Entrepreneurship and the Future of Roads


2 thoughts on “sound off – ontario highways, pay for use?

  1. Pay for the 400 series, isn’t that what our tax dollars are doing? The only way I’d pay for a highway is if it’s a faster, less congested, more direct route. This is the case with the 407, which I am happy to pay for when I want to bypass the chaos that is rush hour in the GTA. If you want to make the 400 series less congested and more appealing, I think that we should be looking at a highspeed train similar to what exists in other parts of the world. This would not only take certain commuters off the roads, but could easily be used for freight during the off hours. I’d certainly pay for high speed train access to Montreal / Toronto and beyond.

  2. Well since taxes collected go into general revenues, it is hard to say just how much of what is colllected goes to infrastructure maintenance. With a distance toll applied to commercial traffic, (possibly managed by a private consortium) the government can specifiy exactly how much must be collected annually to maintain the highways and the auditor general can demonstrate whether in fact it is spent on that budget item.

    As for high speed rail – i’m with you, but don’t imagine for a moment that a dedicated high speed rail bed is suitable for freight traffic. In fact everywhere in europe where TGV, ICE and similar exist, they run on separate lines. This means that population densities and usage must be high enough to make a high speed passenger rail system viable on its own merits, or it simply becomes yet another expensively and inefficiently run government service.

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