One thing that Toronto downtowners and suburbanites can agree on is that our transportation system is desperately in need of modernization. Motorists are losing too much time on Toronto roadways and environs and public transit users are hamstrung by insufficient service whether because of underserviced areas in the suburbs or because of transit vehicle overcrowding in the downtown areas.
That’s where Metrolinx comes in. The province established Metrolinx six years ago to manage the development of transportation infrastructure, called ‘The Big Move’, in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA).
What everyone does not agree on is how to fund all the urgently needed construction.
Metrolinx recently presented a number of funding proposals including four main items: a five cents a litre increase in the current fuel tax; raising the development charges paid by real estate developers by 15 per cent; a charge on commercial parking spaces; and an increase of one per cent in the harmonized sales tax (HST) specific to the GTHA which will bring that tax to 14 per cent.
Despite the desperate need, these funding proposals will not become a reality without a fight. The HST increase, which alone would raise an estimated $1.3 billion annually in the GTA and Hamilton and would account for 65 per cent of the funding for the $50 billion, 25-year construction plan, was immediately rejected by federal finance minister Jim Flaherty. Flaherty said an increase in the provincial part of the HST was never in the harmonization agreement.
Not to be left out, the province’s Opposition – the Progressive Conservatives and the New Democratic Party – also rejected the Metrolinx proposal. And, sticking to his mantra of no tax increases of any kind, Toronto’s beleaguered mayor Rob Ford has also rejected the funding proposal.
In an uphill battle to make The Big Move more than just talk the Kathleen Wynne Liberals have to tread carefully. Wynne has already signaled that whenever the next provincial election is called she will make transportation improvement and its funding an election issue.
But, a Liberal government carrying so much baggage tied to carelessness in spending oversights on the Ornge air ambulance program among other controversies and the hundreds of millions in costs tied to the cancellation of gas plant constructions in Oakville and Mississauga will have to make a very strong case for Metrolinx funding proposals. In fact, it may take an election to verify whether the public will support paying out more money in taxes and user fees in order to bring transportation infrastructure into the 21st Century.
It is clear that while the public is demanding a solution to the everyday aggravation of traffic congestion, there is a significant base that does not want that solution to come from having to take more out of their own pockets. In April, 83 per cent of respondents to a Share online poll said they were not willing to pay more in taxes and fees to help build better public transit in the GTHA.
Yet, we cannot have it both ways. We cannot have the updated infrastructure we need without the money coming from somewhere. The alternative would be for the government to take money from other areas over a protracted period or, as the NDP proposed, increase corporate taxes, a red herring at best.
Most of the province’s spending is already locked up in health and education as well as paying down the deficit, which just about everyone believes to be a priority. It seems improbable to take money from already starved programs like social services, or to cut into the big-ticket health and education budgets.
In order for us, the general public, to support new revenue streams we have to be assured of absolute integrity in this long-term venture. If we cannot see any real gain for our pain then we will continue to suffer traffic congestion and this region will fall even further behind in productivity.