She started well. During the Liberal leadership race, Kathleen Wynne identified traffic congestion in the greater Toronto and Hamilton area as a major issue. She pointed to the impact on quality of life, and the billions of dollars in lost productivity.
In her first interview as Ontario’s premier she confirmed her commitment: “I will spend political capital to get a revenue stream in place …we absolutely will…I’m not going to retreat on that.”
Ten months later the tough talk continues. But she’s already put a political escape-hatch in place. And, she’s lost credibility with her questionable support for a Scarborough subway in Toronto’s east end.
As transportation minister under Dalton McGuinty, Ms. Wynne became a strong advocate for the $50-billion, 25 year, and “Big Move” transit plan. She saw the social and economic necessity of getting people and goods moving again in the country’s biggest megalopolis. It meant finding new sources of financing for an ambitious and overdue transit catch-up program.
In Ms. Wynne’s first budget she kept the faith. “Our government will consider a range of revenue tools to support the expansion of transportation and transit… we will take action following the release of the Metrolinx investment strategy to implement [these] revenue tools.”
That was in May. Since then the wheels have started to come off the bus.
Forum Research found that 51 per cent of voters in the GTA rejected Metrolinx’s proposed menu of tax and toll tools for financing transit. Since then her political handlers have cautioned her. Keep talking about taxes and tolls if you like. But give yourself a way out if the opposition gets too intense.
So, instead of moving the new funding agenda forward, she announced yet another advisory group to study the issue and consult the public. This, after Metrolinx spent years doing the same thing with every conceivable stakeholder in the province.
This gives Ms. Wynne more time. It also gives her a means of hoisting the whole issue beyond an expected spring election.
Despite this retreat, the rhetoric continues. At the recent Liberal policy conference she called traffic congestion the “number one issue in relation to quality of life.” But when asked whether transit funding would be a ballot question in the next election she vacillates. “I don’t know if this will be the issue. There will be many issues.”
In ten months, Ms. Wynne’s leadership on this critical issue has waned from ‘I’m not going to retreat’ to ‘in the fullness of time.’
Wynne’s shameless effort to buy votes by supporting a subway for Scarborough has also damaged to her credibility. Before the August by-election in Scarborough-Guildwood, Ms. Wynne was solidly behind the transit planners at Metrolinx.
They recommended an ultra-modern light rail line from Kennedy station through the Scarborough Town Centre to Sheppard Avenue. It would cost $1.8-billion and provide seven new stops.
Metrolinx forecasted that the LRT line’s peak hour ridership would only grow to 9,000 by 2031. Light rail systems provide for more than double that level of ridership. A subway has three times the capacity needed and costs $1.3 billion more.
‘Other parts of Toronto have subways. We want one too.’ That’s the Scarborough rational. From a transit planning and value-for-money perspective, a subway option shouldn’t even be on the table.
In her bid to win the Scarborough by-election Ms. Wynne forgets the lesson of the gas plant scandal – don’t chase seats with costly infrastructure promises. She commits $1.4-billion of LRT funding to a subway link – one she knows is the wrong option.
After the Liberals’ successful win/buy the seat, Ms. Wynne does something even more politically short-sighted and bizarre. She allows her transportation minister to propose a hastily conceived two-stop subway line to the Scarborough Town Centre to be financed entirely by the province for $1.4-billion.
This gave Prime Minister Stephen Harper the opening he needed to support right-leaning Mayor Rob Ford’s expensive three-stop subway with another $600-million. The remaining billion will have to come from a city-wide transit tax, and more money from Queen’s Park.
The fact that riding-rich Scarborough is being bribed with everyone else’s money is starting to sink-in with the rest of the taxpayers in Toronto, across the GTHA and the province. This is not a funding precedent that will help Ms. Wynne as she tries to sell the electorate on taxes and tolls for transit expansion.
GTHA residents will ask, ‘Why should I pay more for rapid transit in my community when billions are being wasted buying votes in Scarborough.’ The rest of Ontario will see it as more Liberal fiscal folly
Ms. Wynne can only hope this latest scheme fails on technical, financial or other grounds – as so many others have. That would let her retreat to a more responsible policy position. If not, she will have engineered even more opposition to new, dedicated transit financing than existed before.
R. Michael Warren is a former corporate director, Ontario deputy minister, TTC chief general manager and Canada Post CEO. email@example.com