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Martin Laplante

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Sun, 07 Sep 2008

Canada Almost Studies the Possibility of Eventual Road Pricing

On Saturday, the Globe and Mail reported a Transport Canada announcement that they had contracted a study to look into the possible benefits of using using tolls, congestion charges, parking levies and other "urban transportation pricing mechanisms" to induce more efficient urban transportation. The study was to inform future federal policy and funding decisions relating to infrastructure.

Within hours, the Transport Minister (and former head of an urban transit system) said he had personally cancelled the study. And coincidentally on the next day the Prime Minister called an election.

The department spokesman, before he knew that the minister opposed it, said that the federal government hopes to work with provinces to develop "more comprehensive approaches with respect to traffic." So does cancelling the study then mean that future federal policy and funding decisions should not be informed and that they do not wish to work with provinces on comprehensive approaches?

It's a bit of a puzzle. Road pricing is not a particularly left-wing approach, it has been adopted by both left and right wing governments elsewhere in the world and US conservatives are all for it. The Bush administration has given out all sorts of money not just for studies but for implementation. Free-market advocates tend to think that a market approach where you can do what you like as long as you are willing to pay for it and where public transit has a somewhat businesslike source of funding is better than regulations and collecting from taxpayers whatever transit bureaucrats say they would like to spend.

The reality is probably more political. It's hard to support market mechanisms for transportation demand management and then reject market mechanisms for energy and GHG like the carbon tax. And while the current government is not very popular in cities, it does get a lot of votes in suburbs. A toll to commute by car is not what their supporters want to hear. Not even a study to examine the possibility in order to inform future decisions.

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