Is building a toll road in Toronto the right way to fix traffic?

Doug Ford’s government wants to move one million people out of the city and into suburban neighbourhoods by 2040. To do this, they want to build the so-called “401”—a toll highway running up and down the 401 from Ottawa to Toronto. This project, formally known as the Sheppard LRT extension, would cost somewhere between $8-billion and $14-billion. It was first proposed by Rob Ford, the current mayor’s brother, in 2001.

Last week, just hours after Ford confirmed that the project will be government policy, the Globe and Mail ran a story confirming the mayor’s earlier estimate that constructing the 407 would cost an extra $12-billion to $18-billion.

Good news for someone like the former mayor: Doug, at least in his vision, plans to make use of the 407 to move people out of the city.

He has been much more forthcoming than many of us have been in pointing out the intellectual limitations of the government’s planned road project. I wrote about this when I met Doug at a Rotary lunch. Here’s my first question for Doug:

I have no argument with you on the economic benefits of moving people out of downtown. Certainly, though, nothing I have heard suggests that moving people out of downtown to the suburbs on a route originally designed for cars will achieve the end that you want. You want people to move more cars. You want to relieve capacity on the 401. But moving people out of downtown on a toll road will not relieve capacity on the 401. There are no free lanes in Toronto—the Gaiters are all mostly stop-and-go, and even the ones that aren’t limited are heavily used. What you’re really doing is diverting existing passengers out of the city in order to encourage them to take tolls.

And Doug, I have no problem with that either.

In the same era, the Liberals in office in Ontario announced they were to open up part of an existing park to truck traffic for “bioenergy.” That plan is being thwarted by the courts, but to hear government officials tell it, this is the way we move things around here in Ontario. The Liberal plan, with the slightly better-sounding name of “capital building,” has little to do with policy—all it does is involve government getting in and building infrastructure.

What’s the difference between building infrastructure and building a toll road? I don’t know. I’d put it this way: those things are similar, but when we ask whether the really important question is whether those roads make sense for public policy, we tend to get the answer we expect.

I wish it weren’t this way. I wish there were projects in the plan that involved building all the things we need—like some smarter schools or more affordable housing. But until government and municipal planning agencies think smarter about where people live and work, how we shop and the kind of jobs we have, nothing is going to change.

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