Chris Selley: Wynne’s spineless attempts to save her job drown out Toronto’s courage on road tolls
TORONTO — At a quintessential Friday morning press conference at a bus terminal in Richmond Hill, Premier Kathleen Wynne announced she had spinelessly caved to her cabinet and caucus and reneged on a pledge to allow Toronto to toll the Gardiner Expressway and Don Valley Parkway, for fear that her hot shambles of a government might lose votes among commuters in the 2018 election.
Sorry, I mean she announced she’s a really excellent listener: “Any leader who doesn’t listen to those voices, doesn’t listen to the team, … isn’t actually leading.”
Sorry again, I mean she announced tolls weren’t appropriate because she had suddenly realized — since last month, when she said she would approve them — that there aren’t enough alternatives for commuters. “Part of the fairness of decisions that we make has to be that people have choices. It has to be that whatever we do is more affordable, not less affordable for people,” she said.
I’m just going to pause here to note that the maximum toll anyone has thus far proposed, $5.20 a trip, is about twice as “affordable” as a GO train ride from Burlington to Union Station.
Oh hell, sorry a third time. I’m such a Douglas Downer. Wynne had good news! Beginning in 2019, Ontario municipalities will get a bigger share of the gas tax, doubling from two cents to four by 2022. That would likely net Toronto about $175 million annually — “the same money” as tolls would have brought in, Wynne said, to fund Toronto’s giant list of much-needed transit and transportation projects.
In fact, there was no official estimate of what tolls might bring in. A very preliminary staff report suggested it could range from $166 million a year at $2 per trip to $336 million at $5.20. Indeed, the most basic questions remained to be answered: How quickly could tolls be implemented, and at what cost? Once the ever-increasing price of rebuilding the Gardiner was factored in, how much would be left over for sexier projects?
Crucially, however, these were the city’s decisions to make. Toronto had hitched its wagon to a big, new, plausible and sustainable funding source over which it had maximum possible control.
“I think that it’s important that they have the ability to raise the money to augment (provincial funding),” Wynne said way back in, uh, December. Now we’ll have to make do with a promise of $175 million a year, in 2022, from a premier who’s roughly as popular as athlete’s foot. Roll out the barrel!
A source with knowledge of the discussions between Wynne and Tory in September says the premier told the mayor to “go for it” on tolls. “I canvassed with the premier and others in the Ontario government a whole host of other options,” he said — a liquor tax, which (like tolls) is specifically contemplated by the City of Toronto Act, and others that aren’t, like a sales tax or a share of the HST. There was zero interest, he said.
“We are a global metropolis,” Tory thundered. “It is time that … I stop being treated as a little boy going up to Queen’s Park in short pants to say ‘please, could you help me out’.” And if the Liberals are going to say no to everything, he ventured, then they have “an absolute obligation” to provide their own “predictable funding.”
It would seem the Liberals disagree. The premier’s word is not bond, and by rights she won’t be premier for much longer anyway. There’s no love for tolls among her potential replacements: the Progressive Conservatives mount the same populist objections as the New Democrats. In a statement, Tory Leader Patrick Brown declared Friday’s announcement “a big victory for commuters.” NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said municipalities should get the gas tax money sooner — so we’ve got that going for us, which is nice. But it’s not all that much.
“We need more than ($175 million a year) to address $33 billion in unfunded projects that have been sitting around here for decades,” said Tory. “I don’t intend to be the mayor who leaves city hall with that number having (risen).”
Well, that is going to take some doing. There are other revenue options that don’t require provincial sign-off — a vehicle registration tax, a parking tax, property tax — but some are even more politically radioactive than tolls, and a smorgasbord of smaller ones might be a harder sell than one whopper. Tory showed courage in advocating tolls; that courage having vanished into the bottomless pit of Liberal cowardice and expediency, he may soon find himself more or less back at square one.