Canadian cities can’t tackle congestion in a meaningful way without some form of road tolling, according to a new report from a cross-partisan think tank that is calling for pilot projects to prove the idea can work.

Chris Ragan, the chair of Canada’s Ecofiscal Commission, says there is ample evidence from other countries that putting a price on driving can reduce traffic. But he acknowledged that Canadians, accustomed to free access to the roads, need to be convinced.

“Do a pilot project – you’re not changing policy permanently. You put it in for a year, see if it works,” Mr. Ragan said in an interview.

“I think a lot of people instinctively think, oh, this wouldn’t work, that’s a crazy idea … but it actually does work, experience shows that this does work.”

The report’s proposals range from variable pricing on bridges and tunnels, in Vancouver and Montreal, to high-occupancy toll lanes, a form of HOV lane that allows people to pay for access, in Calgary and Toronto.

Monday’s report release comes at a key moment: Traffic is a top-of-mind political issue and policy-makers have increasingly come around to the idea, backed by a substantial body of research, that congestion can’t be substantively reduced by expanding roads.

Recognizing that traffic was one of the hottest political topics, the newly elected federal Liberals ran on a platform that included the promise of major infrastructure spending. Their plan includes billions for transit, but this report warns that such improvements will not be enough.

“On its own, more public transit may not reduce traffic congestion in the long run because it does not solve the key incentive problem,” argues the report from the Ecofiscal Commission, whose advisory board includes figures as diverse as Paul Martin, Preston Manning and Bob Rae. “Without addressing the fundamental issue of misaligned incentives around free access to roads, traffic congestion in Canadian cities will only get worse.”

The 41-page report offers a thoughtful look at the issues surrounding road pricing, including its effects on lower-income citizens, the extent to which drivers have options and the importance of public support. It also delves into how road pricing would be designed differently depending on whether the goal is revenue generation or congestion reduction, urging that any new policy be focused on the latter goal.

However, the report lands amid a political climate that has shown a mixed appetite for road pricing.

Toronto Mayor John Tory is on the record as being opposed to tolls being applied to existing roads. In neighbouring Mississauga, though, Hazel McCallion, the powerful and long-serving mayor who retired in 2014, was open to the idea. And earlier this year, the Mayors’ Council, a group representing the municipalities of Metro Vancouver, said road pricing was an option still on the table.

In two consecutive budgets the Ontario Liberals have talked about high-occupancy toll lanes, an approach that was implemented during this past summer’s Pan Am Games and is expected eventually to be applied more broadly. But during the 2014 provincial election, Premier Kathleen Wynne was asked about road tolls and suggested they would be unfair to drivers without alternatives.

On the federal level, the campaigning Liberals said in September that they would kill the Conservative plan to toll Montreal’s Champlain bridge, now under construction.

Mr. Ragan was undaunted by the political headwinds awaiting the report, saying the debate about road pricing is a discussion that needs to start.

“Our current policy approach isn’t working,” he said. “Everyone knows that [congestion] is a problem, and everybody knows it’s getting worse.”

The Globe and Mail
Published Monday, Nov. 02, 2015 12:00AM EST
Last updated Monday, Nov. 02, 2015 12:00AM EST