Toll booths threaten road congestion

By Jeremy Woo

Whether stuck in a crowded bus crawling along the Trans-Canada Highway or waiting in a parking lot of congestion along Glenmore Trail, Calgary commuters experience frustrating gridlock on a daily basis. Comments made by Mac Logan, Calgary’s general manager of transportation, on September 15 suggest that tolls on major roads may be in the city’s future in order to meet a significant transportation budget deficit. Unfortunately, this plan to increase revenue would suffocate Calgary’s clogged transportation network, triggering numerous undesirable problems for years to come.

Perhaps the most obvious of these problems is the added congestion that road tolls cause. Long lineups at toll pay stations would be a traffic nightmare, especially during peak travel hours. Lines of impatient motorists may cause undue gridlock. Furthermore, the implementation of toll booths and their respective lineups take up much space. Calgary has little room on major roadways to put the necessary infrastructure in place. With many exits and entranceways onto our freeways and expressways, decisions would have to be made whether to place booths on every entrance or close onramps. Either would cause significant problems, whether due to limited onramps and exits or the expense of constructing toll booths. The former would necessitate a revision of Calgary’s city map, while the latter would need a large investment from strained government coffers. Both would cause traffic congestion and delays.

Additionally, one has to question the potential effectiveness of toll booths in Calgary. As a prairie city, Calgarians are blessed with relatively level topography resulting in a roadmap resembling a grid. This reduces the effectiveness of tolls in that they can be easily avoided by the astute commuter. Cities where toll booths exist often have geographical limitations in their transportation systems, like Vancouver, British Columbia, where the downtown core is located on an island. There are few ways to drive to the commercial district in Vancouver, and therefore tolls along tunnels and bridges are unavoidable. This is not the case in Calgary, where a regular downtown commuter using Deerfoot Trail from the south could avoid a toll on the highway by using a plethora of other routes, like McLeod Trail, 14 Street or Barlow Trail. There are hundreds of alternative routes in a grid-style city. 

This would create another problem — an overload of traffic on secondary roads that were not built to handle high volume. The increased maintenance costs would inconvenience local drivers and add to congestion problems in neighbourhoods. Moreover, toll booths themselves are expensive to operate, requiring large-scale employee recruiting in a tight labour market, expensive building costs and maintenance expenditures. Clearly, any city planner must question the true effect of toll booths in Calgary.

Some proponents of toll booths assure citizens that tolls will increase transit ridership and more environmentally friendly forms of transportation. However, in 2006, city officials were already claiming that Calgary Transit was nearing capacity. This is already obvious to University of Calgary students riding the ever-crowded rails to and from school during peak hours. Increased congestion on roads due to toll booths would hinder Calgary’s buses, resulting in slower commute times, decreased capacity and inconvenience for public transit users.

If Calgary’s elected officials decide to oppose the idea of toll booths along major roadways, they will still have a massive transportation shortfall to manage. This could be resolved by a municipal gasoline tax. A gas tax has numerous advantages over a toll system — there are no changes to the transportation network, it encourages energy conservation and drivers pay a per litre rate to cover deficits in the transportation budget. 

As it stands, Calgary already has many transportation issues. Congested roadways and traffic troubles have plagued the city for decades and the city’s massive growth is affecting roadways. Toll booths are not an effective solution to the funding shortfalls of the city. A free-flowing transportation network is vital to the economic growth and competitiveness of Calgary. If city officials want to stop our city’s clogged transportation arteries from going into full cardiac arrest, then they should dump the idea of implementing traffic-congesting toll booths.