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The cost of doing nothing about road congestion

 

The cost of doing nothing about road congestion

In August, the Ontario government announced it had settled on a preferred route for the proposed GTA West highway. Essentially it is planned to arc north of the existing 401 and 407, starting in the east at highway 400 and ending at an interchange into the 407 at Winston Churchill Boulevard. This project, along with the Niagara to GTA corridor was part of the Ministry of Transportation’s long-term plan since the early 2000’s. When this writer became executive director of the Southern Ontario Gateway Council in 2006, both projects were undergoing significant preliminary evaluations.

In 2010, the McGuinty Government abruptly cancelled both projects and ended the evaluations. The government focus shifted almost entirely to discussions of transit. For years we engaged in sterile discussions about “modal shift”—a fanciful notion that we could eliminate highway congestion by getting trucks off the road—instead making greater use of rail and marine. There were people in the Ministry with credentials in transportation who knew how unworkable that theory was but nobody was listening. The fact was, that because rail and marine are significantly cheaper than road transport, every company that could possibly make use of these two goods movement modes was already doing it. Any further modal shift could only be achieved at the margins of the overall road congestion picture. The McGuinty-Wynne approach to highway planning was to ignore it and hope it would go away. Career experts in highways and goods movement were shunted aside as dinosaurs in the Ministry of Transportation. Study after study commissioned by the government warned that even with a massive rollout of public transit, congestion would continue to worsen. But nobody was listening and the congestion problem got worse due to a decade of inaction.

Fast forward to now, and with the explosive growth of E-commerce, there is far more reliance on trucking for goods movement than ever before. There is some discussion now about trying to shift more trucking onto the Toll Highway 407-ETR. The pandemic has significantly reduced traffic on that road. Trucks were never a big part of the 407 ETR’s business because the tolls were prohibitive to truckers who operate on very thin margins now. An 18-wheeler travelling the entire length of the highway would pay $125 if they purchase a transponder, $175 without. A similar distance trip on the New York State Thruway would be $17 It fell to drivers to absorb the cost of congestion by getting up earlier to avoid traffic. Truckers will not use the toll highway at those rates.

The fact is the Ontario government has very little say over how the 407 ETR is operated. It is privately owned as a result of one of the worst infrastructure divestments ever made. The Harris government sold the highway to private investors for $3.1 Billion. Recently Canada Pension purchased a ten percent share for  that amount, suggesting the road is now worth over $30 Billion. 407 is making lots of money and paying big dividends to its shareholders (the principal one being the Canada Pension Investment Board) without a lot of truck traffic; at least it was until the pandemic hit. A massive influx of heavy trucks would increase the toll road’s maintenance costs, which many transport observers think is the reason for the prohibitive toll structure that discourages trucks.

People intuitively hate new highway construction and dislike seeing trucks on the road, but we collectively have contributed this mess with our reliance on e commerce as well as the explosive growth of the province. The Ontario government, for its part has done a terrible job over the past 30 years in transportation planning, leaving us trying to solve problems in 2020 that are significantly greater than they were a decade ago when Queen’s Park decided to bail on road transport.

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