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Recent statements from Toronto's mayor have hinted towards a potential toll on the Gardiner Expressway and Don Valley Parkway.

'Dynamic tolling' in GTA: How it works and weather's role

Leeanna McLean
Digital Reporter

Friday, January 27, 2017, 11:46 AM - Whether you like the idea of highway tolls in Toronto or not, traffic experts say they are inevitable.

Toronto mayor John Tory announced the motion to implement tolls on the Don Valley Parkway and Gardiner Expressway, the two main arteries in and out of the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), in November of 2016 as means for the city to start chipping away at the $33 billion price tag of major transit and infrastructure projects over the next 20 years.

However, Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne rejected Toronto's plan to impose tolls during a news conference at a bus depot in Richmond Hill on Friday.

Instead, the government is doubling the share of the existing provincial gas tax that goes to municipalities for transit.

"Commuters need reliable transit options before revenue-generating measures such as road tolls are implemented," said a news release from the office of the premier. "For example, the ongoing GO Regional Express Rail project will not be completed and in service before 2024. That is why the province is not supporting plans for municipal road tolls at this time."

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Starting in 2019, the municipal share will be increased from two cents per litre to four cents by 2021.

"There will be no increase in the tax that people in Ontario pay on gasoline as a result of the enhancement to the program," the release said. "This new investment, along with Ontario's $31.5-billion transit and transportation investment across the province, will support more buses in cities like Thunder Bay and Windsor, new LRT lines in Waterloo and Ottawa, and GO Regional Express Rail in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area, including SmartTrack in Toronto."

City officials say Tory's suggested $2 toll could potentially bring in around $200 million per year.

While the motion was approved by Toronto's executive committee on Dec. 1, 2016, any tolls on Ontario roads require provincial approval. 

In the midst of this controversial debate, Baher Abdulhai, director of the Intelligent Transportation Systems Centre at the University of Toronto, says tolls are "inevitable" and must be used as a control tool to make congestion manageable.

Courtesy: Mark McInnis -- Toronto, Ontario

Courtesy: Mark McInnis -- Toronto, Ontario

According to Abdulhai, if the goal of implementing tolls is purely for raising funds, there is other ways of doing that including, increasing gas tax like Wynne's plan. However, the focus should be tolling for the purpose of relieving overcrowding on the roads, Abdulhai noted.  

"Yes it raises funds, but the revenue generated by tolls is a byproduct, welcomed by some and hated by others, but that's not the point," the University of Toronto professor told The Weather Network.

As the population of the GTA continues to grow, so will congestion and that's why road tolls are inevitable, Abdulhai added.

"Population and hence transportation demand are ever-growing. Resources like space and money to build roads are not. So, when demand outgrows capacity you simply have congestion, which only grows worse over longer hours and wider space. When demand grows indefinitely, so will congestion, until we choke in it," he said. "As much as we control our roads, our supply, such as with traffic lights, we must control demand before we lose our city and our economy to congestion."

How dynamic tolling would work

The answer to controlling congestion? Dynamic or time-varying tolling, Abdulhai highlighted.

The idea works much like an hour glass. 

"All of the sand is going into the tunnel. So, if that funnel has limited capacity, then simply the sand will back up and be stuck there. But if we manage to pour that sand according to the capacity of the bottle neck, then you can push more and maybe twice in the same amount of time."

Abdulhai used the Gardiner eastbound during the morning peak as an example.

Before 7 a.m. there would be no toll, but after a small amount of 3 cents per kilometre would be imposed, which would increase every 15 minutes to a max of about 15 cents per kilometre. After 9 a.m. the rate would then go back to zero.

"We do not want people to rush to the system and clog it. We want to pace them gradually into the system over time and also spread them over space in a manner that will be consistent with available capacity in the system."

Why is flat tolls not the answer?

Once a flat toll is applied, then the shift in time is no longer there and people would not have the incentive to enter or depart the system earlier or later, explained the traffic expert.

"Even if you would be willing to pay the toll to gain time, you would be hindered by people who are trying to exit."

Shift to transit

One of the anticipated impacts of tolling is some would shift to transit. However, after some investigating the University of Toronto Transportation Research Institute found that if tolls were implemented, there would be little to no shift to public transit.

"The issue with existing transit is it doesn't have capacity, but I think there is a number of plans on the table by the mayor of Toronto, Metrolinx and others to boost transit capacity to make room for the potential shift if you adjust tolling," Abdulhai said.

Torontonians in favour of road tolls

In a recent poll conducted by Mainstreet Research, some 70 per cent said they would support road tolls on the DVP and Gardiner to help pay for transit and infrastructure projects. Meanwhile, one quarter disapproved.

"There's certainly a shift in attitude. I remember 10 years ago, myself included, tolls were a no no. It was just another way of the government putting their hand in our pockets," said Abdulhai. "But as we grow to learn that it is a requirement for managing congestion and as we suffer in congestion, then we collectively wonder what can be done."

While it's hard to speculate why one quarter of the respondents disapproved, the professor believes it is most likely because people do not want to pay.

"If you think you are being charged further, then there is tendency to resist. Until it's justified, then your willingness to pay might improve," he noted. "I suspect if we do it correctly, then we can win the support of the public and manage congestion without angering people."

How weather could impact what you fork out

In extreme weather events, Abdulhai says theoretically it may be a good idea to adjust tolling.

"In severe weather conditions capacity is reduced even further, so there is less room for traffic. So, it might be prudent at this time to adjust tolling to make sure that the demand going into the network is consistent with the reduced capacity," he said. "People change their plans in severe weather, about winter travel, where to go and how to get there and so on. In the same manner you can use tolls to give them even more concrete incentive or disincentive to adjust their patterns."

However, in the event of an emergency, tolling should not be a part of the equation, Abdulhai added.

"There are other ways to deal with emergency including, distributing the demand over space and time by giving evacuees instructions or recommendations as to when to evacuate, which direction to go, how to get there and you can do that in a matter that spreads demand over all directions."

How soon could tolls be implemented?

According to Toronto city council, tolls would be implemented in 2019 at the earliest if approved.

"When we educate the public about why it is required and the best way to do it because if you do it the wrong way it can backfire, but if you do it the right way it can be beneficial, then why not? If people see the benefits then they will welcome it."

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article originally ran on Dec. 13, 2016.

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