On June 16, Montreal’s city council voted overwhelmingly in favor of Mayor Gérald Tremblay’s plan to revitalize the city’s transportation system – a plan that could potentially use region-wide tolls to help fund the $8.1 billion, 20-year project.
For years, tolls have been a hot topic in cities around the world, like New York and London, as urban planners look to combat traffic congestion and meet environmental challenges. As Montreal commuters look to a future that potentially reverts to a toll system similar to the one wiped out in the late 1980’s, some experts and community members are wary of the potential economic impact tolls could have on the area.
The revitalization plan, given the green light by a vote of 50 to 12, suggests the city explore the use of tolls to help fund the project’s projected annual cost of $400 million. With annual funds of $200 million already in the coffers, the tolls, according to city officials, would balance out the costs. As discussions progress, André Lavallée, member of Montreal’s executive committee, has said the plan does not necessarily demand tolls are erected at all 15 points of entry onto the island.
Although the city does have the right to install tolls at all entry points, city officials are still investigating what the best tolling option would be, according to Darren Becker, the Mayor`s spokesperson. The city has explored the option of receiving funding from the federal and provincial levels, however Ottawa denied Montreal’s demand for one percent of the Goods and Services Tax revenue and Quebec refused the city’s request to increase a special provincial tax on gasoline by 1.5 cents a liter. Becker said any plans for tolls will be decided after experts and community members have had a chance to weigh-in on the issue. A committee has been created to hold hearings on the tolls this coming fall, he said.
Stephane Lacroix, spokesperson for Teamsters Canada, said the trucking industry is plummeting into an economic catastrophe throughout the country and transportation companies are shutting their doors. Although Teamsters Canada, which represents Canada’s trucking industry, is not taking a political stance on the potential tolls in Montreal, Lacroix admitted the tolls could have a negative effect on an already suffering industry.
“With the incredible price of fuel, we might end up losing hundreds, if not thousands of jobs in the trucking industry,” said Lacroix. “Of course imposing a toll in Montreal wouldn’t be a good thing for the trucking industry. With the price of gas right now, some within the industry can hardly pay their bills. If they put a toll on top of that, it could be very difficult for them to keep operating their companies or their trucks.”
The tolls could have a ripple effect on Montreal’s economy, according to Marc Cadieux, president and general manager of l’Association du Camionnage du Quebec which represents over 1000 members and 700 carriers throughout the province. Though his organization is not completely opposed to tolls in certain situations, Cadieux warned potential tolls around Montreal could increase the price of goods on the island.
“With any goods that you buy in Montreal or anywhere else, the cost of transport is always included in the price,” Cadieux said. “This means Montreal will be the capital of costly goods. Everything will cost more. You might not necessarily see the cost increase when you buy a pack of gum, but you will with the entire shopping cart.”
Transportation, Cadieux said, is like any other business and prices need to reflect operation costs. Anywhere that truckers go, like New York’s toll roads or Toronto’s 407, the cost of tolls is always factored into the bill. With the recent increase in expenses caused by inflated fuel costs, Cadieux said it is certain the transport industry will charge the stores for the tolls and those costs will be relayed to the consumer.
That increase in costs will cause an economic shift as businesses and consumers move away from the island to avoid the price hikes, according to Missouri-based Wendell Cox, who is considered to be one of the world’s foremost experts on urban policy and transport. Cox has done consulting work around the globe—including Toronto and Montreal.
Cox said some businesses will uproot and move to other districts in response to the increase in costs and other businesses, who are considering making Montreal home, will be turned away. In today’s world, Cox said, businesses are able “to go anywhere they want.” The potential economic stress caused by an increase in shipping costs, bringing in employees and the loss in business caused by potential customers not wanting to drive to Montreal, has the potential to wreak havoc on the local economy, Cox said.
“There is nothing sacred about Montreal,” said Cox, noting the ever-growing suburbs. “There is nothing sacred about anyplace. Montreal is a delightful city, but you can make it so people won’t go there. It is hard to imagine anything worse for the future of the Ville de Montreal than tolling.”
One of the biggest issues with raising money through tolls is that public transit operators, with powerful unions at the helm, have a tendency to hoard money and never give anything in return, according to Cox.
“Transit can swallow up the funding in a matter of ten years,” Cox said. “The cost escalation is dreadful. What has happened to transit costs in North America is outrageous. You essentially have unions that are in a monopoly situation with respect to bargaining and city administrations that don’t dare stand up to them because, as you know, a transit strike in a city like Montreal causes a lot of trouble. It happens all over North America.”Looking back at Montreal’s transit system to the early metro years and up through today, he said, there is very little increase in ridership and yet there have been large increases in costs. Most of this money, he said, is going into paying the people that run the transit system.
Another of the city`s claims, that tolls will reduce traffic, has also been challenged by officials at the Canada Automobile Association of Quebec (CAA-Quebec). Last year’s member survey found that most commuters won’t make the switch to public transit even if they are forced to pay bridge tolls. Even with the tolls, people would still use their cars, according to Roxanne Héroux, spokesperson for the 900,000 member-strong association (half of whom are in Montreal). One of the reasons, she said, is it’s the best ways to get their children to school or daycare.
Such is the case for 32-year-old Sainte-Julie resident Pierre Gauthier. Father of two young children, Gauthier said the current public transit system was not designed for families. Daycare hours and bus operation hours don’t line up, he said. Were he to rely on the bus to get from the South Shore to his job at Radio Canada, he would need to shift his schedule completely. The bus schedules would force him to drop his kids off at six in the morning – nearly two hours earlier than he does now. Not only that, he would have to pick them up no earlier than 17h15, therefore losing yet another hour from his day.
“I have checked all the public transit options and nothing is convenient,” he said. “Maybe tolls are a good way to popularize public transit but they must improve the transportation system. Even if Montreal installs pay tolls, I will continue to use my car if the common transportation system doesn’t improve.”
CAA-Quebec`s position seems to find support from Britain`s National Alliance Against Tolls (NAAT). Formed four years ago the NAAT has repeatedly stated that tolls, in general, are ineffective and uneconomic. John McGoldrick, NAAT spokesperson, admits there is slightly less traffic in London since that city`s Congestion Charge was implemented, but, he said, traffic is moving as slowly as before and there has been no detectable improvement in air quality. The tolls have been so costly to run that there has been very little profit margin, he said, and retail owners and restaurants within the “charge zone” have taken an economic hit.
The tolls in London, like the proposed tolls around Montreal, don’t necessarily cover every possible route into the “charge zone.” This means, McGoldrick said, that traffic is being diverted to other routes, causing an increase in congestion, smog and accidents in other areas that weren’t necessarily designed for the heavy traffic flow.
Not all commuters are completely against the idea of paying tolls to enter Montreal but people like Isabelle Laperriére, 31, who owns a condo on the South Shore, feel the potential cost of nearly $5 per trip is too high. Although she already uses the bus to get to work everyday, she hates the idea of paying a toll each time she wants to drive into Montreal. With gas prices where they are, she said anything more than a dollar is just too much.
Paul Mackenzie, 41, lives in Verdun but drives to the South Shore once a week to study martial arts. He said he takes the metro on occasion but, partly because of the 25 minute walk to his dojo from the Longueuil station, the trip ends up taking a lot of time. Driving, even through traffic, is faster, he said, and therefore he would, were tolls implemented, look into starting a carpool to split the cost of the toll.
“I support tolls,” said Mackenzie, “As long as the money goes toward transportation infrastructure like roads, bridges, metro, etc. and there are no additional traffic jams because of it.” And that`s the big question mark. Where is the money really going to go?