Will Ottawa finally study user fees for roads?

On March 2nd, Ottawa’s Transportation Committee will receive an estimate from City staff on the time and costs required to conduct a study on user fees for roads.

This is a result of a ‘direction to staff’ moved by committee member and City Councillor David Chernushenko on December 2nd. It was during the city’s 2016 Budget deliberations that two members of the Healthy Transportation Coalition (listen here to related audio from the meeting) urged the City to study the potential effectiveness of user fees for roads, and Chernushenko agreed it would be worthwhile to do so.

The leadership shown by Chernushenko, who is also Chair of the City of Ottawa’s Environment Committee, comes at a time when cities across the country are increasingly showing interest in the subject (see examples in Vancouver, Calgary, and Montreal) and Ontario is moving forward with a pilot project in the Greater Toronto Area that will see the conversion of some high occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes into high occupancy toll (HOT) lanes.

During the Budget 2016 presentations, Ottawa was reminded that Ontario’s Transportation Minister Steven Del Luca has said the province is willing to work with any Ontario municipality that wants to toll a road within its jurisdiction.

A commitment by Ottawa to study various options for a user-pay approach to roads was originally included in the Preliminary Policy Proposals (see User Pay on pages 10, 11) released in January 2013 related to the Building a Liveable Ottawa 2031 planning process, which later that year finalized updates to the city’s Official Plan and Transportation Master Plan. But, unfortunately, the commitment to study user fees for roads did not make it in to the final version of those documents.

This is not the first time user fees for roads in the nation’s capital has been proposed. Indeed, Ottawa is currently in the midst of studying how it might be able to remove thousands of transport trucks from its highly populated Lowertown and Sandy Hill neighbourhoods through the construction of a downtown truck tunnel. A feasibility study on building the tunnel is expected soon, and Jim Watson, Ottawa’s mayor, has said he would want the tunnel to be a toll tunnel to recoup the construction costs associated with building the large underground hole.

And, in 2013, City Councillor Stephen Blais had pushed the idea of charging a toll to non-residents of Ottawa driving into the City, creating congestion on Highway 174. At that time it was reported that Blais thought the plan could raise as much as $5.6 million a year for Ottawa and the move was justified because “traffic from outside the eastern border of the city is contributing to the congestion on the highway but those motorists don’t pay taxes to maintain the road.”

Indeed, there are a number of compelling reasons why Ottawa should move forward with studying a user pay approach for roads, not the least of which is that applying user fees to roads could help the City meet its greenhouse gas emission reduction commitments.

And there are other important benefits that pricing congestion can help accomplish, such as revenue generation, cost savings to drivers, and increased health and safety, all of which were highlighted in a recent Pembina Institue report.

While Ottawa is doing a lot to create incentives for people to use public transit, spending billions of dollars on a new light rail transit system, the first phase of which is due to be completed in 2018, it is abundantly clear not enough is being done to create disincentives for unsustainable transportation behaviour.

Transportation currently accounts for about 40% of Ottawa’s ‘community’ greenhouse gas emissions (emissions created by people who live, work, and play in the nation’s capital are referred to as ‘community’ emissions in the city’s Air Quality and Climate Change Management Plan, while emissions generated by the city government’s operations are referred to as ‘corporate emissions’;).

It should also be noted that many of Ottawa’s 6,000 kilometres of roads it is responsible for operating and maintaining are in a state of disrepair. As was recently noted by the National Capital Heavy Construction Association, reports indicate that roads in the nation’s capital are worse than roads in many other Canadian cities:

• According to the Canadian Infrastructure Report Card, while almost 50% of roads in Canada are deemed to be in good or very good condition, the story in Ottawa is quite different.

• In the City of Ottawa, just 20% of all roads are deemed to be in Good to Very Good condition.

• The story gets even scarier when you look at Collector Roads, where over 50% are rated as being in Poor to Very Poor condition.

• The 2014 Ontario Municipal Benchmarking Initiative report would seem to confirm the results of the Infrastructure Report Card.

• The 2014 OMBI report revealed that Ottawa had the worst roads of the major cities participating in the benchmarking study.

• Only 19% of paved roads in Ottawa were rated as being in good or very good condition. This compares to a mean of 54%.

Ottawa is clearly having difficultly funding the proper maintenance and repair of its 6,000 kilometres of roads. The costs of repairing those roads increases exponentially the longer the roads are allowed to deteriorate. Due to a lack of financial resources, Ottawa recently decided to postpone the widening of the Airport Parkway.

An argument could be made that those driving on the roads daily, damaging them with their heavy vehicles, should be paying more of their fair share. Reports from the C.D. Howe Institute, using figures from Transport Canada, have shown that governments routinely do not recoup all the costs associated with building and maintaining our roadways:

Gas taxes, vehicle licences and other revenues from drivers, which do little to curb congestion, only covered 53 percent of roadway expenses across Canada during the 2009/2010 fiscal year.” (see page 7, Figure 2)

Bolstered by success stories from around the world…

Source: Canada’s Ecofiscal Commission


… and in order to build on the good work of Canada’s Ecofiscal Commission, and Pembina Institute (both groups have produced great reports on the need for user fees for roads), it is time the nation’s capital showed leadership on this issue, and at a minimum, study the pros and cons of different user pay approaches for roads.

Given Ottawa’s numerous bridges, collector roads and Highways (417, 416, 7, and 174) within its jurisdiction, there are many areas of the city where pilot projects could be established.

We should not have to wait until the truck tunnel is constructed and tolled to see how effective road pricing will be. The city’s financial situation and climate change commitments demand that it take action now.

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