By Gord Price

Mayor John Tory of Toronto announced last week that he’s going to try getting road tolls on the Gardiner Expressway and the Don Valley Parkway to help pay for their maintenance and to raise revenue for the city’s ambitious and much overdue transit plan.

Guess what? It’s controversial.

CBC’s Cross Country Checkup took it on as a topic on Sunday, and I had a chance to add my contribution (the interview starts at 20:00)

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In summary:

It’s a gutsy move, every mayor will be watching – but they’re probably sceptical he can pull it off.

Don’t expect rational responses; this is emotional – and so it’s tough to find an option that will be seen as fair.  There are all kinds of reasons to not pursue any particular proposal, especially in the hope that technology will solve the problem in the future.

That’s one of the reasons there are so few examples of tolls on highway infrastructure that do anything more than pay for new roads or bridges.  The number of cities with congestion charges can be counted on practically one hand – and most ran into political opposition from the suburbs or exurbs that used their political representatives at the state or federal levels to fight the city’s proposal.  It happened with Mayor Bloomberg’s desired congestion charge for Manhattan, and Mayor Tory may run into the same problem with the Ontario legislature.

Anyway, the idea of tolling a road or bridge is so 20th-century.  Eventually, the charging will be done, as it is with telecommunications, through the individual user’s access to the system.  In other words, through the car and truck – and the distance, time and place they use.  Oregon and others are pioneering the technology.

But again, the problem is emotional: the loss of the ‘free way,’ the right to the road we’ve already paid for – a democratic space we all have equal access to.  But without an ongoing funding option, political leaders are left with few options: defer maintenance; allow the system to deteriorate physically and through congestion until unpalatable options become more acceptable; or privatize the system and shove the problem onto someone else.

In fact, I’m predicting the emergence of the Transportation Service Provider (TSP) – the equivalent of the telecommunications giants that provide us, for a monthly fee, with all the delightful, distracting and necessary things we get through our electronics.

Imagine a future Uber that contractually provides you with all the transportation options you need through car and bike sharing, transit of all kinds, taxi equivalents, as well as parking, maintenance, technology upgrades and, especially, the information you need to access it all.  And you will be able to pay for all those options through your monthly fee, including the taxes that will be effectively invisible.

That’s what will make the model so attractive to governments: they will be taxing a third party, not the user/voter.  (How much are the taxes on a cell phone call?  You don’t know and you don’t care.  If the cost seems to be too high, you blame your service provider.)

The prospect is actually pretty scary: these TSPs will be very powerful, and will likely be able to skew the transportation infrastructure and design to their benefit.  But if voters leave government with few other options, privatization will be irresistible if not inevitable.