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Thursday, December 8, 2022
Op-ed: NOTLers beware the modern-day highwaymen

J. Richard Wright
Special to The Lake Report

Most of us have probably heard of Dick Turpin, a notorious British highwayman who cashed in his chips in 1739 after being found guilty of appropriating a horse that wasn’t exactly his.

However, before his inglorious end, this rogue roamed the highways and byways of merry old England lifting purses from gentlemen and ladies alike at the business end of a musket.

As the trap door springs and the rope drops for our anti-hero, fast-forward 260 or so years to the story of another highwayman who was charged with the public trust by Ontarians.

Unfortunately, these citizens had no idea that, when voted into power, he would take something that rightfully belonged to them and sell it for a song.

First conceived in the 1950s, after 10 years of construction, Ontario’s 407 toll highway opened in 1997. The idea was that taxpayers would repay its construction costs through usage fees. After an estimated 30 years (six years from now) the highway would be free to all travellers.

It took Premier Mike Harris slightly more than a year to lust over the 407 and its potential salability.

In typical Conservative mode, he took a public asset that belonged to Ontario taxpayers and sold it in the largest privatization deal in the province’s history. The price: $3.1 billion for a 99-year lease.

Some government watchdogs called it a bargain-basement price, others said it was a sweetheart deal. For the purchasers, that is, not the people of Ontario.

Were Harris’s motivations as pure as the driven snow oozing out of a Conservative philosophy of small government, few regulations, and private commercialization of public assets?

Or, facing voters once again, was he trying to balance the budget to get re-elected in 1999? (Quoting a figure who remains in the shadows: “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of man?”)

Considering that the 407 company declared revenues of $1.5 billion in 2020, and it was sold for $3.1 billion nearly 23 years ago, one can only wonder.

Of course, the $1.5 billion isn’t free and clear. There are expenses and stipulations and obligations to be met.

What is clear, however, is that Harris allowed the 407 to set its own rates and Ontario now has, arguably, the most expensive toll road in the world, even beating out Austria and Switzerland and the USA’s Pennsylvania Turnpike.

And, despite ownership changing hands to subsequent consortiums of highwaymen, Ontarians can look forward to paying through the schnoz for 77 more years to use it.

Safely ensconced in the grotto/paradise of Niagara-on-the-Lake, this NOTLer didn’t dither about the rights or wrongs or costs of the 407. At least until I had occasion to travel to the far side of Toronto.

But what’s a couple of dollars, eh? So I used the 407 from Burlington to Brock Road, near Pickering. And came home the same way.

A little over a week later, the sky darkened, thunder rolled and the bill from the 407 arrived.

Citizens of Niagara-on-the-Lake, gather round and listen closely.

The charges were thus: Basic toll charges: $104.08. Trip toll charges for two trips (one going and one coming) at $1 per trip for a total of $2; camera charges each way were $4.20 for a total of $8.40. Account fee was $3.95. Then a toll charge of $1.72 for Highway 412 and 418, wherever they are.

The grand total: $120.15 for the trip to and fro. Or, 21 Big Macs. Or, a flight to Florida, and most of the way back, from across the river.

Indeed, mea culpa. And I expected to pay. But $120.15? Talk about a bunch of highwaymen! Dick Turpin would be so envious.

J. Richard Wright is a Niagara-on-the-Lake author with two novels, more than 50 radio and TV plays, and more than 2,000 articles to his credit.