5 Questions: How Ontario’s free-market approach to commuting has worked so far

After Doug Ford was elected Ontario’s premier, he pledged to reform the province’s road and transportation infrastructure to make it better. “The time has come for a bold new approach and we are going to release our economic blueprint with the most transparent and accountable platform in the province’s history,” he said shortly after being sworn in on March 11.

As part of his five-point plan, which involves scrapping the province’s cap-and-trade program, building a toll bridge, upgrading subways, and modernizing bike lanes, Mr. Ford pledged to get rid of Highway 401. It’s supposed to be the longest and busiest highway in the province, transporting more than 1.3 million vehicles each day. But it also suffers from delays and gridlock – so much so that it has been dubbed “muffin road” in some corners.

When Mr. Ford was asked during a debate last August why he would want to scrap the highway, he replied, “The biggest issue with the 400 isn’t the route, it’s the traffic, it’s the congestion.” He said that the planned Highway 413 would relieve congestion, lowering travel times and setting a better example for Canada.

But during a May 2017 interview with CBC Radio’s Joe Oliver, the executive director of the Toronto Port Authority, Bob Kutchwsky, said the opposite. He said that the 407, which runs along Highway 401 in southwestern Ontario, was responsible for “countless” delays along the highway. And the 218, which runs along Highway 401 in the east, he said, was one of the worst in the country.

On March 9, the CBC released a video report titled “Bridge or Not a Bridge,” which highlights instances where the 407 has disrupted traffic on Highway 401. It also highlights a 2015 study from the Canadian Transportation Research Institute that found both the 407 and 401 experienced significant delays and congestion between 2010 and 2015.

When it comes to congestion on the 401, Toronto appears to be in the penalty box. According to one of the state’s website’s, “carpooling is the primary source of congestion along the 401.”

In recent years, a number of alternative highways have opened in southern Ontario, such as the 407 and the 417, said NPR. But this does not appear to be creating real change in the traffic patterns. While traffic volumes on the 416, a smaller route that runs east and west of Highway 401, appear to be falling, most of the plows go to 401.

In fact, both the 400 and 401 (and Highway 407) are causing serious traffic troubles in Toronto, the CBC reports. And in one 2014 survey, 1.5 million people described traffic as their “number one pain point.”

“This is a problem the entire province has to deal with,” said Toronto Mayor John Tory. “Hitting these projects doesn’t happen in a day, and it’s on the backs of commuters that the province’s going to have to pay for it.”

Ontario’s transport minister, Steven Del Duca, told the CBC that the province was acting responsibly to tackle traffic congestion, but does not yet have a plan for the 400. “We don’t have a plan to build this in the province,” he said.

He added, however, that the province plans to examine the possibility of a new bridge along the 407. He said that if the government commits the $15 billion it has budgeted for projects in the southern part of the province, they can put a section of the 400 on the main list and find funding for the extension.

But the Highway 413 study was conducted before the 407 was built. With the 407 now open, much of the Highway 413 would be on a different highway. During a May 2018 interview with the CBC, Del Duca suggested that a new bridge would create much-needed capacity for commuters. But according to Mr. Kutchwsky, what the government should do is look to the alternative routes that already exist to relieve the gridlock.

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