Here’s why Toronto should add a congestion charge like New York City

Now that Premier Ford has control of the highways for the Greater Toronto Area, he has an opportunity to implement a comprehensive congestion pricing plan for the region. Although he has dismissed the possibility out of hand, this government has shown itself to be adept at revisiting positions.

Introducing road pricing or congestion fees in the Greater Toronto Area will not be easy or uncontroversial. But the GTA is plagued with one of the worst congestions in North America and its effects are significant.

The cost of congestion is pegged at $6 billion in lost productivity. The Toronto Region Board of Trade estimated in 2018 that the cost of congestion to the average household is $125 per year.  Since drivers are already paying indirectly for the cost of congestion through time stuck in traffic and for loss in productivity, would drivers be willing to pay directly to get where they want to go faster? I think the answer is yes.

The current provincial policy subsidizes the indirect costs that some drivers pay by letting them use HOV lanes under certain conditions. If a driver has one or more passengers or drives a “green” vehicle they can access the HOV lanes, which reduces their travel time. This is a virtue-based policy, but the reality is that there is no objective way to measure whether a car with two passengers is helping to reduce congestion. 

The virtue-based policy should be replaced by an economic-based policy. Road pricing and congestion charges have been shown to work in multiple jurisdictions. Each policy is slightly different.  

The most successful and well-known congestion charge was imposed by London, U.K. Drivers who wish to enter the city core during certain times must pay a fee. New York City approved a similar measure on the lower half of Manhattan. The money raised from the fee is reinvested back into transit and transportation infrastructure.

The downtown core has been hard hit by the effects of the pandemic, and any congestion charge would add to this hardship. The reality is that the construction and reduced lane capacity already serve as a disincentive to drive downtown. Maybe congestion charges can be considered once the Ontario Line is completed.  

KAREN STINTZ is a former city councillor and was a chair of the TTC.