Many drivers see road tolls as a nuisance, but they're not just a way to raise money — transportation experts say they’re a valuable way to regulate the transportation grid and streamline traffic.

Countries like Sweden and Great Britain have used tolls to ease congestion, curb carbon emissions, fund public transit and generally create a more comfortable and expedient commute for all travellers.

In Canada, however, tolls are a relative rarity — across the entire country, there are only 18 pay-as-you-go routes. What’s more, only two of them are roads (the 407 in Ontario and the Cobequid Pass in Nova Scotia), and 12 are bridges or tunnels on the Canada-U.S. border, like the Ambassador Bridge to Detroit from Windsor, Ont.

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Given crumbling bridges in places like Montreal and crushing commute times in Toronto, experts wonder why Canadian municipalities aren’t using tolls more often.

"‘Tolls’ is kind of a catchphrase for road pricing, which has lots of different options," says Cherise Burda, director of Ontario transportation policy at the Pembina Institute. That can include everything from traditional tolls, to congestion charges, to more progressive strategies like vehicle miles traveled (VMT).

"Things like that have the added benefit of giving drivers pause, and making them think, what are some of the other options of getting around?" says Burda.

Manipulating traffic

According to Enid Slack, director of municipal finance and governance at the Munk School of Global Affairs, tolls are important "not only because they bring in money to build the roads, but they discourage people from using those roads, and in the future would reduce the need to expand those roads."

Says Slack, "The tolls don’t just act on the revenue side, but they play a role on the expenditure side, because they reduce the demand for roads."

They can also manipulate traffic flow, and one of the most successful models is the congestion charge in London, England. Between the hours of 7 a.m. and 6 p.m., London drivers must pay a rate of £10 (approximately $16 CDN) to pass through the downtown core.

This great experiment was launched by London mayor Ken Livingston in 2003 with the aim of reducing congestion and raising investment funds for the city’s transit system. While the "C-charge" continues to have its detractors, a 2007 study reported that it had reduced car traffic in downtown London by about 70,000 vehicles a day.

A similar toll introduced in Stockholm in 2007 has shaved car traffic by 25 per cent.

Singapore has had a congestion charge since 1973, and since it was implemented, the city-state has witnessed a 70 per cent bump in transit ridership.

Canadian congestion

Canadian cities have some of the highest commute times in the world — in Toronto, it takes an average of 80 minutes to get to and from work every day; in Montreal, it’s 76 minutes. Canada is in desperate need of some sort of road infrastructure strategy, says Burda. 

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Introduced in 2003, London's congestion charge has significantly reduced the traffic in the city's core. (Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

"We’re years behind where we should be," she says.

That's one of the factors making the idea of tolls more palatable to Canadian drivers. According to an online poll conducted exclusively for CBC News by Leger Marketing, half of Canadians would be in favour of road tolls if they reduced gridlock and shortened the daily commute.

One of the most successful tolling strategies in Canada is Ontario’s 407, a privately owned express toll route (ETR) that stretches 108 kilometres across the top of the Greater Toronto Area. Opened in 1997, the 407 is the world’s first electronically operated toll highway.

The 407 charges what’s called a "free-flow" toll – in other words, drivers don't need to stop to pay. When motorists get on and off the highway, they pass under a gantry mounted with equipment that automatically records the beginning and end of their trip. Their ride is validated in one of two ways: by a video camera, which scans the car’s licence plate; or through a signal to a transponder mounted inside the vehicle. (Riders can rent the transponder for $21.50 per year.) The driver then gets a bill in the mail.

"The people that use [the 407] know that every day they’re going to get to work at the exact same time that they did the day before," says Martin Collier, a road pricing consultant based in Guelph, Ont. and director of the learning series Transport Futures.

"[The highway’s owners] get a bad rap because they only comprise 100 of 300,000 kilometres in the province of Ontario. But for their customers – about one million of them – they’re giving them the best ride in all of Ontario."

Another road-pricing model that has been trialed by governments in Holland and U.S. states such as Oregon and Texas is vehicle miles traveled (VMT), which charges motorists based on mileage rather than for driving in a specific geographic area. In this scenario, each car is outfitted with a meter, and the driver’s journey is tracked using GPS technology.

Collier likes VMT, but advocates something called "dynamic road pricing," which has also been tested in Holland.

As with the VMT model, drivers are tracked by GPS, but the toll reflects more than just distance. It takes into account every choice a motorist makes in a given journey – rewarding them, for example, for driving a more fuel-efficient vehicle or using a longer but less clogged route.

Maintenance costs

Besides helping to manage the traffic flow, tolls have the obvious benefit of helping to generate funds.

Municipalities build and maintain most of the road infrastructure in Canada, and a 2007 survey by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities indicates that communities need an additional $21.7 billion to maintain and upgrade existing transportation infrastructure assets.

As Slack points out, there's a need to find reliable road pricing strategies because of reduced provincial transfer payments. Transfer payments from the provinces have tapered off in recent years, and property taxes — a city’s only real source of revenue — are already stretched to the limit. The alternative to raising property taxes to cover that bill is to find user-pay sources of revenue.

According to the Leger poll, 47 percent of Canadians would pay a road toll if the proceeds went to funding public transit, which suggests that Canadian municipalities need to think more like some of their international counterparts.

"In Stockholm and London, they got acceptance for the [congestion charge] partly because they said the money that was generated from the congestion charge would be earmarked for the transit system, but we have no mechanisms for that here," says Collier.

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Vancouver transportation authority TransLink and builder Golden Crossing mark the completion of the deck on the Golden Ears Bridge in Langley, B.C. in 2009. (Golden Crossing Constructors Joint Venture)

"A lot of funding for the [Toronto Transit Commission]

, for example, comes from upper government, property taxes, et cetera – a lot of things that really have nothing to do with the transportation system."

Burda believes the reason tolls are so little used in Canada is government aversion to user fees.

"I think that politicians see tolls or other types of road pricing as a political hot potato. They want to be re-elected and instituting a toll or tax is not the most popular thing to do," she says.

One group dealing with this issue head-on is TransLink, Vancouver’s regional transportation authority. TransLink operates everything from Vancouver bus service to the SkyTrain to the Golden Ears Bridge, an electronic toll bridge that connects Langley and Pitt Meadows, B.C.

TransLink funds its operations through transit fares, part of the provincial gas tax, as well as a share of property taxes collected in each of the region’s 21 municipalities. TransLink has the power to raise money not only for road infrastructure but for transit, which enables it to look at the bigger transportation picture.

"It’s an integrated system they’re trying to put together," Collier says. "Transit, roads, biking, walking — it’s a holistic viewpoint."

Whether it's an approach like TransLink, or a greater reliance on tolls, Burda says that improving the country’s transportation system is going to require a significant mental shift.

"We are used to paying for gas to run our cars and for parking," says Burda, but "Canadians are just used to not paying for driving. It’s in our psyche."

"The way I see it, it’s going to happen eventually. So we can either have bold champions like in Vancouver doing it now to help reduce gridlock and pay for a transit vision, or later when things are much worse."