Love affair with cars is taking its toll

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We can call them toll highways or congestion charges or road pricing, or just another tax, but the era of the “freeway” is clearly passing its due date.

Charging tolls on highways and roads may be wildly unpopular among voters everywhere — and politically dangerous around the world — but in almost all other respects, it solves many problems: It can relieve traffic congestion, help save the environment, increase economic efficiency and protect many taxpayers.

And, yes, it can finance the construction of new roads and expansion of existing ones, but only if they’re truly needed.

An electronic road pricing scheme already exists in Toronto, which is now considering more.

The auto congestion charge in London, England, has become famous as much for reducing downtown traffic and increasing public transit use, as it has for gaining public acceptance.

Singapore has one. Stockholm has one. Milan introduced one this year.

Toll roads force more people to use public transit, and therefore make public transit more efficient and more attractive.

They persuade some people to live closer to work. They can make shipping by rail more attractive than by truck, therefore relieving congestion and sparing us all the air pollution.

In Toronto and many other jurisdictions, the business community, often opposed to more “taxes,” has come to understand the various benefits of road pricing.

It’s true that gasoline taxes should cover the cost of new roads and road maintenance, but it’s not clear they actually do.

And, yes, the price of gasoline is already surging, but clearly motorists can use more encouragement to avoid running their cars.

In an increasingly urban country, efficient road and transportation systems are vital to the economy.

But when too many users consider the service “free” and squander the privilege, it quickly begins to fail. Governments cannot maintain roads or expand them fast enough to meet the seemingly unquenchable thirst of a car-addicted society.

It’s time we put an end to the free ride.

– Paul Berton, paul.berton@sunmedia.ca

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