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Steve Collins covers urban affairs and other issues facing the nation's capital.

Cities should get chance to toll themselves if it works for them

Metro's Steve Collins argues whatever your position on tolls, they should be decided on locally.

Mayor Jim Watson has said he favours the option of using tolls to pay for the proposed downtown truck tunnel.

Metro File

Mayor Jim Watson has said he favours the option of using tolls to pay for the proposed downtown truck tunnel.

My OC Transpo customer experience last week: waiting in line to top up a Presto card with a $5 bill and discovering the minimum load is $10.

I react perhaps too frankly to this revelation and am reminded by the unfailingly pleasant and professional customer service representative that she doesn't make the rules, and I know, I know.

Indeed, it can be difficult to pinpoint who does. If I inquired with OC Transpo, I'd likely be referred to Presto and/or Metrolinx to tell me that's just the way it is, $6 for a card, $10 if you actually want to go anywhere, take it or leave it. I didn't follow up.

Still, one wonders how Tim Horton's stays in business with a minimum card load of two bucks.

Logically, I can't imagine why you'd be required to add more than the price of one ride – a price that goes up 10 per cent in January. In part, this will help cover an increasing bite of fares that will go to Presto, the payment system our city was pushed by the province into adopting, with gas tax revenues as the carrot and losing those revenues as the stick.

Pressure aside, at least local government made the decision to put us in the hands of Metrolinx.

In general, decisions about city services should be made by city governments, which was why an open letter last week from big-city mayors (including ours) arguing for the power to impose tolls for specific purposes, for "the tools to do the job and the accountability that goes with them," was encouraging.

It's refreshing to see mayors step up and claim primary responsibility for local matters, rather than shrugging in the direction of provincial governments or their proxies (Metrolinx or the OMB, say)  and saying with a sigh "the matter's out of our hands."

Ottawa's council has repeatedly hesitated to even ask the province for more control over its own affairs. The option to bring in photo radar, for example, or election finance reform (the latter having been thrust upon them anyway by provincial legislation).

Mayor Watson was at pains last week to explain his signature on the letter didn't indicate any radical conversion to charging Ottawa motorists for congestion and other costs they impose on their fellow citizens.

“I've indicated that I would be supportive of some kind of a toll in the truck tunnel for King Edward to help pay for that inititiative , but I'm not in favour of tolls,” he explained.

Such a scheme is a sensible way to pay for the project, which could cost up to $2 billion by one recent estimate.

It's also easier to charge users for new infrastructure like the tunnel than try to put a price tag on what had been free the day before, like driving major freeways like the Gardiner Expressway or the Don Valley Parkway, as Toronto's council decided last week.

Local politicians know there is a price for everything, and the price of tolls and other user fees, if imposed without making the case to those who will pay them, could ultimately be paid with their jobs.

As city voters, we can make smart decisions or short-sighted ones, and live with the consequences. And that should be up to us.

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