Gridlock – why should we care?

Last week, Metrolinx released it’s list of potential ways to fund improvements to the GTA’s highway and transit network, to try and reduce the gridlock that has made greater Toronto one of the worst cities in North America to try to get around.   So why should we in Barrie care about gridlock?

Well, for one, there are something in the order of 30,000 residents of Barrie that commute to Greater Toronto to work.  These folks (I was once one of them) are losing thousands of hours of their lives every year to congestion – time that could have been spent with their families, on recreation, or in the community.  As one small example, it’s a lot harder to find soccer and baseball coaches when a significant chunk of our population can’t get home before 7pm due to traffic.

An even larger impact is economic.  While this may be less obvious, gridlock is a huge drag on our economy.  It’s costing us jobs, because companies can’t get their materials or their goods in and out of our region, and spend far more in terms of time and fuel to do so.  Employees are caught in traffic, reducing productivity.  And of course, the environmental costs are substantial as well.

The solution sounds simple – add capacity to move more people and goods.  But of course, the costs of new highways and new transit lines is enormous, especially in established urban areas where land has to be acquired for new corridors.  In practice, the costs make this  nearly impossible.

So reducing gridlock needs to be about using existing corridors better.  Anyone who commutes down Highway 400 in the morning from Barrie to greater Toronto knows that there are pinch-points, particularly at major interchanges like 401/400.  To some extent, additional lanes can help.  But we also need to make transit a realistic alternative for more people.  GO Transit today carries nearly 1,000 people a day from Barrie to jobs in the GTA, but almost all of these are in downtown Toronto or nearby, since the GO system is really only designed to serve one destination, Union Station.  As one example, if Barrie riders could take a GO train to Highway 7, then switch to light rail along Highway 7, they could access jobs in Vaughan, Richmond Hill, Markham, and near Pearson Airport in Mississauga – which by the way is the largest concentration of jobs in Ontario (bigger than downtown Toronto).

Now this is not to say I think that’s a good thing – I want the jobs in Barrie, and my view is Barrie needs to be a complete community where fewer people have to commute.  But the pattern of jobs and employment will only change slowly over time, and in the meantime, I think we need to face the reality that people from all over southern Ontario are spending far, far longer than they need to be, commuting.

The fact is, however, we are not going to see the investment needed to address gridlock without some sort of new revenue tools.  Both the Federal and  Provincial governments are  deep in deficit.  Municipalities are struggling already with the ever-expanding burdens on them today.  The money will have to come from somewhere.

Expecting it all to come from motorists through tolls, or from everyone through taxes, is not going to be popular, and it can’t be the only part of the solution.  People are taxed enough: while some may accept voluntary charges such as tolls for HOV lanes, there is unlikely to be any degree of support for something like tolls on existing highways, nor do I think that’s the way to go.   I think there are better ways.

Development charges or (better) land value capture through Tax-Increment Financing or other new tools needs to be part of the solution.  I for one think the Toronto parking levy – a charge on each parking space in Toronto – is a good idea.   It is transparent in the sense that it’s directly related to the proposed expenditures (transit/roads).  A Toronto region-only luxury sales tax such as a hotel tax or on high-end vehicles may be another part of the solution.  Local sales taxes are common in the US, although since this would likely only apply in greater Toronto, it might just drive people to shop in satellite cities like Barrie (!) – an interesting possible side effect.

Regardless of where this ends up I think it’s long past time to stop talking, come up with a plan, and start building the road and especially rapid transit that greater Toronto needs to get out of gridlock.