In the first of a five-part series on the benefits of road tolls, Edward Keenan argues against selective socialism.
So, once again we have a report—this time from the hippie pinkos at the Toronto Board of Trade—suggesting that the City of Toronto (or the Province of Ontario) should implement road tolls or congestion pricing to combat gridlock and fund transportation infrastructure. And, once again, the suggestion has been more or less dismissed out-of-hand by politicians on the grounds that it would be unpopular.
There’s a good reason for politicians to think that way—a poll released last month by Forum Research showed only 43 per cent of Torontonians supported road tolls as a method of fighting gridlock (even fewer supported them if the stated purpose was funding subway expansion). Moreover, as anyone who listens to radio call-in shows could tell you, the people most opposed to the idea of putting a price on the use of the roads are really, really opposed and tend to get all frothing mad, with veins popping out of their necks and spittle flying everywhere, whenever the subject is brought up.
Still, despite the protests of these red-faced socialists insisting that they and their cars are entitled to gorge at the taxpayer-funded transportation trough (I kid! I kid! Some of my best friends are red-faced automotive socialists!), a real leader could and should continue to make the case for road pricing. Because it makes sense.
So, because this is a big issue with a lot of different parts to it, I’ll be posting some thoughts on the subject each day this week. Let’s start with the pseudo-moral argument that opponents of road pricing often make—i.e., that some basic right is violated by road tolls.
REASON #1: CHARGING FOR ROADS IS NOT A COMMUNIST PLOT
We pay for all kinds of things according to our use of them, including many of the most necessary things in life: food, housing, electricity, heating fuel and clothing, just for a start. This is often true in the public realm as well, unless there is a compelling reason not to regulate demand. Have you paid for a TTC token or settled a metered water bill lately? To insist that some moral imperative prevents charging for road use is just silly—or at the very least, it is rooted in an anti-capitalist ideology not generally associated with the Drive Free or Die movement.
Charging for things based on usage—that is, using prices to see that supply and demand meet each other—is the basis of capitalism. Sometimes, there is a compelling social reason not to let a market dictate how a good is distributed: the concept of allowing access to justice based on ability to pay is considered repellant by most people, as is, in Canada, charging directly for healthcare services. In other cases, charging for use is unnecessary or self defeating (I’m thinking of public parks, for example, which are not so crowded that anyone’s enjoyment is usually affected by demand, and whose benefits to the community are shared by those who use them and those who do not).
In the case of roads, there is no compelling case to be made that universal free access should be guaranteed as a right. And there is a fairly compelling case that the amount of usage our roads get—particularly on the highways and downtown—causes social problems that need to be solved. Charging for use is one way to solve some of those problems. Whether or not it is the best way to solve those problems is a pragmatic argument about the best way to make the city function well for the most people. Over the coming days I’ll explain why I think it is.
Continue reading: Why we need road pricing—reason #2