It was a shock to hear that a Quebec Ministry of Transport study shows that putting tolls on the replacement for the Champlain Bridge will dissuade some drivers from using it.
Even more shocking is that the higher the price, the less drivers will want to take it.
Actually, it would be a real shock if the study, revealed this week by Radio-Canada, showed anything else. It confirms something taught in every Intro to Economics course: higher prices tend to reduce demand. Since there will be plenty of other ways to get into the city, traffic on the New Champlain will be particularly sensitive to toll prices.
Despite all the protests from Montreal-area mayors and local politicians, however, making the New Champlain a toll-road can be a good thing as long the price structure is used to control demand. If the price is too high, the span will become a luxury item used by people who don’t care about cost, by drivers whose employers pay for it, and by those who are willing to spend the money only when they’re really pressed for time.
For an example of this, you don’t need to look any farther than Toronto, where high prices on the Highway 407 toll road that skirts the city ensure it’s often about as busy as a bouncer in a bingo hall.
If tolls are too low — or there are no tolls at all — the traffic volume on the bridge could very well rise above the current load of 160,000 crossings a day, assuming (safely) that the new structure will be more efficient than the old. A toll-free bridge will also encourage private, polluting transportation rather than mass transit and compound the already critical problem of downtown congestion.
Local politicians of every stripe — even the eco-conscious NDP — are pushing hard to convince Ottawa to scrap the plan for tolls, but Prime Minister Stephen Harper has made it clear that free access is not on the table.
This is one of those rare occasions where I agree with him. Just as transit users are expected to pay a portion of the cost of the public system, so should bridge users shoulder a part of the cost of the New Champlain, currently pegged at anywhere between $3-billion and $5-billion.
Many South Shore residents have located there because housing and taxes are cheaper, housing lots are bigger and green space is more plentiful. It’s not too much to ask that they pay a little more for newer and faster infrastructure they use to escape the Island at the end of every workday.
The Harper government isn’t going to change its mind on this issue, and despite what Justin Trudeau’s Liberals and Thomas Mulcair’s NDP might be saying these days, even a change of government won’t kill the toll plan. Canadians in other province will quite rightly argue that since Ottawa doesn’t finance the construction of local bridges in other municipalities, it shouldn’t be doing it in Montreal unless toll revenue covers the federal cost. That’s the way it was from the day the Champlain Bridge opened in 1967 until 1990, when the booths were closed for good.
Just because the federal government diverted from standard policy to build the Champlain in the 1960s — it usually only pays for international or interprovincial brides — doesn’t mean it should do so again in 2015. And it certainly shouldn’t use scarce federal resources to effectively subsidize private transportation.
Toll structures can be used to encourage or discourage certain types of activities. For example, rates for trucks could be kept high enough to convince drivers to skirt the on-Island route and instead use the new toll bridge connecting highways 20 and 30 near Vaudreuil. Tolls on passenger cars will also help encourage car-pooling and the use of mass transit.
These objectives should be foremost in the minds of bridge managers, who might otherwise set rates intended to rake in as much money as possible in the shortest time span. After all, since the project will involve a level of private ownership, there must be guarantees that the public interest will be protected from quick and easy cash grabs.
So, rather than engaging in a futile attempt to block any tolls, Quebec should be fighting for a healthy dose of regional and provincial representation at the table of the organization that will be charged with managing the bridge. Since whatever happens on the New Champlain is bound to affect traffic on the other bridges and on the Island, that local perspective needs to be considered when setting and adjusting the toll rates.
Insisting on local input is a goal that is reasonable and responsible. Pleading for a free ride is not. ■
Peter Wheeland is a Montreal journalist and stand-up comic. His sardonic observations about the city and province appear on Cult MTL every Wednesday. You can contact him by email or follow him on Twitter.