Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne is preaching to the choir when she says, “We need to build a seamless and integrated transportation network across Ontario.” Wynne recently presented in broad terms a $29 billion, 10-year Moving Ontario Forward infrastructure plan to members of the Toronto Region Board of Trade.
We all know we need transit and transportation improvement, but the big issue of how to pay for this plan is the question on everyone’s mind, especially since Wynne promised the money would not come at a cost to middle-income earners. When asked to define who the middle-income earner was, she said that would be revealed in the May 1 budget in more detail. Wynne is right to focus on transportation needs. But we need real ‘details’ on how that is going to happen. Will it come at a cost to other programs, such as in services for low-income and poor families? Or will Wynne follow her predecessor and introduce new ‘revenue tools’ dedicated to infrastructure improvement and maintenance?
It is obvious why Wynne is holding out until the budget is read since there is a general distaste for any increase in taxes. But the premier and the rest of the government need to engage in solid groundwork to get the public squarely on side if that is to be the case. They will have to ensure that the vast majority understands and supports how much they are invested in this vital area of public development and how it will improve their daily life.
She has said that the funding will not come from increasing the HST, gas taxes, or income taxes on middle or lower-income people. Does that then mean that corporate taxes as well as taxes of high-income earners in Ontario will go up? She also made the point that whatever form revenue will take will be attached to where you live in the province. That is something rural Ontarians and those in northern regions of the province would be relieved to hear, since it would be a very hard sell to try to win support for transportation development in the Greater Toronto Hamilton Area (GTHA) in those places. Wynne’s $29 billion would see $15 billion invested in the GTHA and $14 billion for the rest of Ontario.
The stakes are high. For one thing, we now have the unwanted title of the longest commute times in North America, one result of which is productivity loss of $16 million every day. For another, the Liberals are willing to wager their political future on this plan. Compare the Liberals’ as yet unspecified details for a dedicated revenue source for this 10-year plan to that of Tim Hudak and the Progressive Conservatives who assert that an affordable and sustained plan can be funded without any new fees or taxes. The New Democrats have yet to reveal how they would address this crisis of need but it would not be surprising if they try to play the no-tax-increase card as well.
What Wynne has pointed to is taking funds from the existing HST on gas and dedicating it to building new transit, roads, bridges and highways. She also pointed to reinvesting money from the province’s sale of its shares in General Motors, among other sources.
What has really been holding all of this back for well over 30 years is the lack of a dedicated funding source and political will because politicians fear having to implement new taxes. But every adult knows, or should know, that there is no such thing as a free lunch. If we want schools of superior quality and a superior healthcare system, and if we want the kind of infrastructure that will put this province and this economic centre on a footing with other successful ones, then roads, bridges and public transit have to be adequately funded. Not just for maintenance, but always with an eye to the future. We already know all too well, and painfully so, what happens when this important priority is continually kicked a little farther down the road, we end up with gridlock and lost productivity and we lose our standing on the world economic stage.
While we’ve only been talking here in this province, Boston, Massachusetts had its Big Dig, and Denver, Colorado, with a very small increase in sales tax built 75 kilometres over five years. With this latest proposal, Wynne has given us more talk, now we need decisive action.