Category Archives: Toronto

Salting the roads

Good piece in the Toronto Star today on the tradeoffs governments make to keep the roads clear of snow and ice in Canada’s cold climate:

Our roads may stay snow-bare, but our heavy dependence on road salt is toxic to the environment.

The salt burns trees, chokes vegetation, and contaminates soil. It depletes water of oxygen, and is toxic to many fish. Salts also accelerate the corrosion of automobiles, roads, bridges and sidewalks.

So why do we keep using piles of the stuff?

It comes down to money. Salt is cheap. There are less harmful alternatives – some man-made, others naturally derived, from corn or sugar beets for example – and many jurisdictions in the United States, such as Colorado, New Jersey and Ohio, are beginning to put them into heavy use. But they are expensive.

The fact that Toronto and the province have all but passed them over in favour of salt underscores a cold calculation: To the government, reducing environmental harm is apparently not worth the extra cost.

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Resources aren’t infinite

Traffic jamAn exchange I had with commenter “George in Toronto” about the price of municipal water has been playing in my head. George argues:

[In Toronto,] the water course is Lake Ontario. Any water that Toronto does not use simply continues East until it reaches the Atlantic. And any water that is used, in most cases returns to the lake through the sewer system. In Toronto, water is truly free. You can walk down to the beach and take a bucketful at any time.

You can, I argue, but only if seven million other residents of greater Toronto didn’t get there first. If they did, there’d better be a system that limited them to one bucket each. Otherwise, you’re going home with an empty bucket.

Meanwhile, Eamonn Butler of Britain’s Adam Smith Institute argues at the institute’s blog today that, if I read him right, essentially all roads should be toll roads. Certainly that all crowded roads should be.

If charging does not deter traffic, the charge is not high enough. There is some price at which the traffic will flow. If the charge makes people avoid the morning peak, all the better…

The market is the best way of allocating most resources, roads included. Of course, you have to cut the other taxes on motoring, and provide realistic alternatives for those priced out by the charge. But without some such solution, congestion will inevitably get worse: and that costs businesses and the public dear.

Which puts him in practical agreement with Steven Cohen and Jacob Victor of Columbia University’s Earth Institute, who are at Grist Mill today arguing for New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s congestion charge plans:

Some critics erroneously view congestion pricing as yet another expensive environmental protection program that would operate at the expense of economic productivity. But the success of the plan reflects the fact that many business and political leaders, like Bloomberg, finally realize that environmental sustainability and economic efficiency go hand in hand.

(I had trouble deciding what to quote from Cohen and Victor’s short essay; the whole thing is very much worth reading.)

What the water and road-capacity issue have in common is this: We have a lot of water and we have a lot of roads, but these things are not infinite. When we think of any resource — a watershed, space in a highway system — as infinite, we eventually run into problems, and adapting to solve those problems is a shock.

  • We thought the atmosphere’s capacity to absorb waste gases was infinite. It isn’t.
  • We thought the seas’ capacity to absorb waste liquids was infinite. It isn’t.
  • We thought our lakes’ and rivers’ and aquifers’ capacity to provide fresh water was infinite. It isn’t.
  • We thought when roads got clogged, we could widen them and solve the problem. Doesn’t work like that.
  • We thought when we started to run low on spare electrical power, we could just build more power stations. Not quite.
  • With water, there’s a more immediate concern than the natural supply: the treatment plants reach their limit and the pipes reach their capacities long before the lake runs out.

The challenge is that with all these resources, we’ve built systems that assumed that there would always be more fuel, more water, more room for waste in the air. The limits on these things are very high, but limits there are. And as soon as there’s any degree of scarcity at all, the rules have to be different. Suddenly, we need to ask who has the most right to these things. We can try to set up systems to make sure everybody gets what they need, but we cannot let everybody have what they want.

Now we have to adjust — to a reality that has always been there, we just haven’t realized it — and that hurts.

(Photo credit: “.“, Flickr/fffriendly.)

Paying the real full cost for city water

waterfallThe Residential and Civil Construction Association of Ontario advocates spot-market pricing for water:

Harry Kitchen, economics professor at Trent University and author of the report on financing, noted that consumers pay far less for water than what it actually costs. “That’s because, historically, the municipalities have not included asset replacement costs in calculating their water rates. The impact has been an inability to maintain and upgrade these systems.”

Some of the key recommendations in the two reports are metering, full-cost pricing, and greater private-sector participation. With metering, consumers pay for the amount of water they use. This promotes conservation. As well, metering allows the application of variable rates in order to reflect the season of the year or time of day of water use.

Here’s a Toronto Star story on the idea, too.

They’re working from this study (PDF) by Professor Kitchen who’s one of a very few genuine academic experts on municipal finances and talks sense every time I hear him. At length and with due academic rigour, he makes the straightforward point that municipal infrastructure such as water pipes are falling apart because cities don’t charge what their services actually cost.

In Ontario, at least, they’re tantalizing close to doing so. They’re required to use what’s called “full-cost pricing,” but that just means cities have to figure out what their systems cost to run, and make sure those costs are reflected in the water and sewer rates. That sounds right, but in practice, they charge the exact same price 24/7/365, regardless of the capacity strain the system is under, and frequently leaving themselves nothing extra to repair or expand the water system with.

Furthermore, because there’s no discount for using water at off-peak times, people turn on the taps whenever they feel like it, meaning the demand spikes are atrocious. To accommodate them, the water system needs to be overbuilt.

Kitchen and the construction association call for close metering of water use, among other things, with rates that vary with demand and time of year. This is what Ontario’s electricity system is gradually being heaved toward, over quite a bit of opposition from people who don’t want to pay more for power. (They’re usually the ones who really should.)

Variably priced water would also make it a lot easier for municipalities to raise rates to reflect the damage that city water use does by draining local waterways.

Don’t expect anything to happen till it’s crisis time, though. That’s what it took with electricity.

How much public annoyance are we shooting for, here?

I’m all for trees, and trees on public rights-of-way at the edges of residential properties are complex mixed goods that I don’t find it too offensive if a government supplies them and then asks homeowners to do a little to maintain them. Nevertheless, what they’ve done to Toronto blogger “Politique Vert” seems wrong:

 We have a new tree the city gave us after our 100 year old Maple tree died of old age and too many root cuttings by the gas company. The new tree is an ugly honey locust with barely any branches, just a few on the very top. It looks like a scrawny mutant palm tree. The tag that was on it when it was planted said I’m supposed to give it 2 or 3 full pails of water a day in the summer for the next 2 years. You’re supposed to add water until some of it stands and doesn’t drain into the soil right away. Watering with a hose is easier but you never know how much water is actually going in. Hauling the pails is a drag but it’s faster than standing around with a hose in my hand at 6 am.

(Emphasis mine.) Honey locusts barely grow in southern Ontario. I grew up on a street in the Toronto suburbs that had several of them and they were tall, leggy things with sparse, pale leaves that always looked like they were dying even as they got taller and leggier year after year. Whereas maples, you practically can’t stop from growing.  Politique Vert, being a green sort, might keep the thing alive till it can grow on its own, but it seems to me something a little less demanding of the citizenry would be a better public investment.

Toronto doing what it can

Toronto City HallThis is what you get when governments with appropriate powers to fix genuine problems abdicate their responsibilities:

Tolls on Toronto-area highways, a ban on gas-powered lawnmowers and leaf blowers, a requirement for hybrid taxis and a massive retrofit of city buildings are all needed to slash greenhouse gas emissions in Canada’s biggest city, according to a Toronto city report.

The report, issued late yesterday, calls for efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels by 6 per cent within five years; 30 per cent by 2020; and 80 per cent by 2050. It also asks council to find ways to reduce smog-causing pollutants by one-fifth over the next five years.

“This will change everything about the way Torontonians live,” Councillor Gord Perks (Ward 14, Parkdale-High Park), vice-chair of the parks and environment committee and a longtime environmentalist, said of the report…

Franz Hartmann of the Toronto Environmental Alliance said the report contains “some very, very good recommendations and elements.” He called the proposed ban, by 2011, on the two-stroke engines fantastic.”

Councillor Paula Fletcher, who chairs the parks group, said the phase-out would be gradual. The city will start replacing its mowers next year and other city vehicles will become more environmentally friendly over time.

“We banned pesticides,” she said. “Why not ban things that are destroying things, that are bad for the environment in every neighborhood?”

All this stuff described in the Toronto Star story I’m quoting from is in a menu of options for greening up Toronto (PDF) offered by the city’s bureaucracy, partly but definitely not exclusively by cracking down on things that emit greenhouse gases. (The proposal for road tolls is a little bomb tossed at the provincial government, incidentally, whose acquiescence would be needed. There’s an election schedule for October and this is one no politician seeking votes in Toronto is going to want to touch with a 50-foot subway car.)

Many of the options are reasonable, particularly those to do with making the city’s own operations more efficient. And with others, the goals are quite desirable — leaf-blowers don’t do anything you can’t do with a rake, and modern push-mowers are easily as good as gas-powered ones for a typical lawn. Getting rid of them would be a good thing.

It’s the means that are awful: ban this little thing here, ban that little thing there, command by legislative fiat behaviour that rational people wouldn’t choose on their own (in particular, pity taxi drivers who might have to spend extra on hybrid cars whether hybrid engines achieve the desired effect or not). How will we enforce all this stuff? Don’t really know. Neighbours will tell on their neighbours and maybe somebody from bylaw will come by an hour later to see if the guy’s still mowing, probably.

Toronto’s resorting to this partly because its city council is dominated by — not unanimously controlled by, but dominated by — angry nannies, but also partly because the municipal government is using the tools available to it under Canadian law.

Toronto can’t apply a carbon tax or any variation thereof, to make the gasoline that powers those hated two-stroke engines more expensive and encourage individuals to find the best alternatives for themselves. But it can ban just about anything it feels like banning. So that’s what it’s doing.

(Photo credit: “Toronto City Hall 2,” Flickr/bennylin0724.)

Garbage fees meet resistance in Toronto

TrashcanTorontonians have had it just about up to here with extra charges for city services, according to a semi-random sampling of city residents by the Globe and Mail, and they’re not terribly keen on paying extra for their trash.

“With the amount of taxes we pay, they want to charge us for extra garbage?” [Anita] Moller asks. “I think that would be crazy because I think that is the only [useful] service they provide to a household.”

She says the city’s policies are fussy enough to begin with – even without people having to adjust to the city’s latest rubbish ruminations. “You’re not putting out garbage for fun,” she says. “It’s garbage!”

Toronto city council is considering following Vancouver’s lead by offering residents garbage bins of different sizes. The smallest bin would be free, while the larger bins would come with a rising schedule of annual collection fees.

This is a totally reasonable way to charge people for a service they consume according to how much strain they put on the system. The more garbage residents put out, the more trucks are needed to carry it, the more garbagemen are needed to work on the trucks, and the faster landfill space fills up. If you paid a private company to take your trash away, this is pretty much how they’d charge you.

Toronto may be botching the sales job, however, by considering the plan a moneymaker. The Globe:

Geoff Rathbone, acting general manager for the city’s solid-waste services, says the plan has two goals: to raise funds to accomplish the city’s goal of 70 per cent waste diversion, and to get people to more readily recycle.

This despite the earlier reporting of the CBC, which said in April that “Under the plan, waste collection costs would be eliminated from the property tax system and replaced instead with a flat annual fee based on the amount of garbage a household produces.” The issue here very much appears to be that even comparatively virtuous trash-generators have the feeling that they’re going to get screwed by the change.

The point of tax-shifting, which is what this nominally is, is to put costs on the people who generate them and withdraw the burden from people who don’t. Shifting taxes and expecting to pull in more from the public’s purses and wallets is a sure way to discredit the idea.

One other thing. Reporter Geoff Nixon talks to one woman who says here family has a standing joke of calling the poor sucker who has to sort the recyclables out of their trash each week the “executive vice-president of garbage.” Why not just have two bins next to the regular garbage, for paper and plastics, and make it everyone’s responsibility all the time? Much less of a chore that way.

(Photo credit: “Bulembu,” Flickr/Miss Heidi B)

Crazy socialist billionaires

Good column from the Globe‘s John Barber today. He’s in New York following Toronto Mayor David Miller to the cities’ climate-change summit. I’m skeptical of people who talk about green policies as job-creators (in a previous era the same people were in favour of publicly funded road-building because of all the jobs involved for road crews), but that’s a passing point. Barber’s specifically pointing out how many moguls see the merits of cutting waste and increasing energy efficiency for its own sake, and how far apart these rich entrepreneurs and the Canadian government are.

What a pity Canada’s Environment Minister, John Baird, wasn’t invited to the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York yesterday to counter the glib, partisan propaganda on global warming spouted by former U.S. president Bill Clinton and his soft-headed leftist followers, including the city’s Republican Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, senior executives from five of the world’s largest banks and four of its largest energy service companies.Astonishingly, this benighted band of marginal socialist cranks, joined by two dozen mayors of the world’s largest cities, has yet to be enlightened by the doctrine of the exalted Calgary School. These business and political thinkers have deluded themselves into believing there’s a good buck to be made – and lots of workers to be employed — in the business of tackling global warming. Yesterday, they announced an immediate $5-billion investment in the cause – for which they naively expect to be fully repaid, with interest.