Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak last week waded into Toronto’s gridlock wars, pledging to upload the city’s subway and future LRT lines to Metrolinx, the provincial agency that oversees transit planning across the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA). Metrolinx, he argued, “should be put in charge” of operating a “truly regional system” that integrates rapid transit, highways and GO bus service. His proposal hints at a crucial but largely overlooked governance question that lurks at the edges of the debate about financing new transit lines: How should Queen’s Park ensure that those who pay have a say in how the funds are spent?
Mr. Hudak wants the province totally in charge, but he has little to say about where the money will come from. GTA business and civic advocacy groups, in turn, believe Queen’s Park should enact new “revenue tools” (i.e., parking taxes, tolls, congestion charges, etc.) to raise the billions needed for future projects.
These proposed taxes, however, would only be imposed within the region. But if GTHA residents will be asked to shoulder additional gridlock taxes, which government would be responsible for ensuring the money is spent effectively?
It’s a slippery question, which is probably why policy-makers are ignoring it. Why should non-GTHA legislators have the authority to make decisions about taxes levied exclusively within the GTHA? Conversely, should an MPP from Northern Ontario take political heat if Metrolinx mismanages its budget, à la Ornge?
In the United Kingdom, this conundrum is known as the “West Lothian question”: MPs from Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland casting votes on matters that only affected England. One solution: a “grand committee” composed of just English MPs that convenes to vote on specifically English matters.
Queen’s Park could establish a grand committee of Toronto and Hamilton-area MPPs to provide political oversight. Some city-regions have developed other approaches. In London, the mayor is accountable for the congestion charge that funds transit expansion. In Los Angeles, the county ensures that the $40-billion raised from a 2008 regional sales tax hike and earmarked for transit and road improvements will be spent prudently.
Closer to home, Greater Vancouver’s TransLink – which coordinates transit, commuter rail and major roads across the Lower Mainland – answers to a board appointed by a council of the region’s mayors. TransLink’s non-fare revenues come from regionally levied taxes on fuel, parking and property.
No one wants another layer of government. But if there are to be new taxes exclusive to a specific region, policy-makers can’t ignore basic principles of good governance, namely no taxation without representation.