TORONTO – Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne has denied a divisive request from Toronto to charge tolls on two major highways into the city’s core, framing the decision as a move to protect people’s pocketbooks while funnelling more transit money to municipalities.
It dovetails with a government pledge to trim electricity bills, which are the target of rising voter anger, as the Ontario Liberals turn their focus to affordability issues with a provincial election less than a year-and-a-half away.
“I know that people are having a hard time keeping up with the rising cost of living,” Wynne said Friday. “We need to make sure that investing in transit isn’t costing you more money. We recognize that commuters need to have reliable transit options in place before revenue-generating measures like road tolls are implemented.”
Wynne denied that the decision was a purely political move to ensure the Liberals don’t lose votes in the regions surrounding Toronto.
“I’m trying to work with municipalities and provide the support that they need so that they can build public transit,” she said in response. “It’s completely consistent with what we’ve been doing over the last four years.”
The toll proposal, which Toronto Mayor John Tory suggested could charge $2 for trips on the Gardiner Expressway and Don Valley Parkway, has been controversial ever since it was announced in November.
Some experts said the tolls would be the first in the country on expressways cutting through a major city’s downtown core and could set a positive precedent for other large urban centres. But the plan faced pushback from Toronto’s neighbours and some members of the public who said the tolls would put undue pressure on commuters.
Wynne said commuters wouldn’t have had enough choices to justify adding the tolls.
Instead, the premier said that starting in 2019, the share of the gas tax that goes to municipalities will increase from two cents per litre, reaching four cents per litre by 2021 — but it won’t increase the tax that drivers pay at the pumps.
Ontario currently commits $335 million of gas tax funding to about 100 municipalities for transit, which the province estimates would increase to $642 million in 2021-22.
The Liberal government has promised to balance the budget in 2017-18 and 2018-19, but with an election looming in 2018, it has not made any promises about budgets beyond those years.
Tory said the gas tax enhancement means Toronto will ultimately get $170 million more per year, but it’s less than the $200 million to $300 million he believed Toronto could have raised through tolls.
“The province has severely impact the city’s ability to solve its own fiscal challenges and invest in its priorities,” he said.
Ontario has downloaded services to municipalities, and even enacted the City of Toronto Act to help the province’s “economic engine” meet its complex needs, but then the government won’t let Toronto make use of the tools in that very act, Tory complained.
“It is time that we stop being treated — and 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 with something that I thought was in the City of Toronto Act that I could do’ and to be told, ‘No, I’m terribly sorry, go away and come back some other day when houses are falling down and having to be closed up, transit needs are not being met, traffic is in chaos,'” Tory said.
The Association of Municipalities of Ontario welcomed the gas tax funding for the communities that have transit systems, but said the remaining 345 still face infrastructure pressures.
“Rural municipalities face an infrastructure gap for roads and bridges of about $468 per capita — that’s double the gap that exists in small and large urban municipalities with populations greater than 100,000,” it said.
Wynne had at one point appeared to have been seriously considering the toll proposal. But both of Ontario’s opposition parties had opposed Toronto tolls, and Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown took credit for Wynne’s decision to deny them.
“While the Wynne Liberals have never met a tax they didn’t like, the Ontario PC Party’s relentless opposition has led to a victory for affordability in the 416 and 905 area codes,” he said in a statement.
Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said municipalities can’t wait until 2021 for the increase revenue from the gas tax.
“I am deeply disappointed that the premier has decided to play games with the urgent need for transit funding,” she said in a statement. “The timing of this announcement and the fact that the money she is promising won’t begin to flow until after the 2018 provincial election is politics at its worst.”