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Vancouver is the first Canadian city to pursue a congestion charge. Is Toronto next?

Vancouver is the first Canadian city to pursue a congestion charge. Is Toronto next?
Canada
On any given day it’s a tight squeeze to get into the downtown peninsula, where a limited number of roads and bridges supply the only access points to the city’s core.

Traffic is bumper-to-bumper and Vancouver’s Broadway corridor, just across the water to the south of downtown, is often referred to as the busiest transit route in North America. Cars there back up trying to cross bridges to get to the city centre.

Now, city council is hoping within two years a plan can be worked out to ease the gridlock, make up a looming revenue decline and fight climate change by charging drivers to get into the region’s metro core starting in 2025.

Other Canadian municipalities have quietly taken notice.

“We’ve been getting all sorts of notes from other councillors who are really keen on ideas like that,” Fry told the Star.

Meanwhile, Toronto has been searching for new streams of revenue for years and, though it could be a tough sell to residents, according to local councillors, some officials have explored the idea of transport pricing in the city. Whether such an initiative will work is where it gets complicated with economic, equity and logistical implications.

Congestion charges have been used in cities such as London and Stockholm for years. In the United States, larger cities like New York City, San Francisco and Seattle are also working on their own charges.

Alleviating traffic snarls and climate-change mitigation isn’t the only reason Vancouver is planning to implement a charge.

Funding for transit in the city comes from taxes worked into the cost of gasoline in the region. By 2030, the city is predicting half the cars on Vancouver roads will be electric, drastically reducing revenue needed to update and maintain such infrastructure.

As well, car ownership in the city has been declining in recent years as people opt for car shares or transit, Fry said. He’s hoping the city comes back with a workable way to implement the plan, which also overcomes any public opposition to it.

“There’s absolutely no point in us doing this if it’s going to drive people out of our city, if it’s going to force business to flee, then nobody would be paying the thing anyway, what would be the point?” Fry said. “We’re trying to get results here. We’re trying to shift people’s understanding of the cost of private vehicle ownership.”

It’s a different situation in Toronto where funding for such initiatives comes from revenues like property tax and funding transfers from federal and provincial governments.

But Toronto Ward 11 Coun. Mike Layton said transport pricing may still be a way to help fund transit improvements.

Layton has explored the idea of a congestion charge before and said it does come with challenges in Toronto, such as inadequate transit, equity issues and collecting the fees. As well, he doubts the current provincial government would ever allow the city to institute such a fee.

He said in London it was easier to introduce the charge due to the existing network of CCTV cameras. Such a network doesn’t exist in Toronto.

Despite the obstacles, he said, it is not an insurmountable task and could help ease the city’s long hunt for additional funds, though he added it may be better for environmental reasons than it is for financial ones.

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“It can do a significant amount of good in trying to give people an incentive to take a different form of transportation,” he said. “But it’s not the greatest revenue tool.”

In his research, Layton said he found it costs 30 cents on the dollar to collect such fees.

But even without a proposal in Toronto a congestion charge already faces political opposition.

Deputy mayor and Ward 16 Coun. Denzil Minnan-Wong said such a fee could discourage people from coming into the city, serving up a financial hit to local businesses already dealing with COVID-19 damage.
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