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Premier Kathleen Wynne in Toronto on April 29, 2013. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)
Premier Kathleen Wynne in Toronto on April 29, 2013. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

GTA transit pitch leaves Premier with dilemma Add to ...

“I know in Ottawa you get tired of hearing about Toronto,” Kathleen Wynne acknowledged during a speech this week. “I get that.”

That, however, did not stop the rookie Premier from talking at significant length about one of her favourite subjects: the need to raise new funds to improve the transportation infrastructure of Ontario’s largest city and its surrounding area. “Toronto is the financial centre of this province,” she said by way of explanation. “And if its economy can’t grow, then we all suffer.”

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It was partly a pitch for a “national transportation strategy” that would see more federal funds poured into Ontario. But it was also Ms. Wynne’s way of showing that she is not afraid to make her case anywhere in her province for ambitious new spending on the transit needs of what she now refers to as “the greater Toronto and Hamilton area.”

She will likely can be expected to take this message to other corners of Ontario in the months ahead. And with a great deal at stake – Toronto’s ambitions, intraprovincial relations, her own political fortunes – she will be walking a very fine line.

Creating new revenue streams to ease Toronto-area gridlock is by this point too central to Ms. Wynne’s economic agenda, her pitch to the suburbs, and her efforts to distance herself from Dalton McGuinty for her to back away from it. But if she follows through too zealously, she could restrict her Liberals’ electoral map almost exclusively to the 416 and 905 area codes by confirming fears in rural areas and smaller cities – many of which are suffering severe economic problems of their own – that she is too Toronto-centric.

That latter danger became obvious this spring, when the provincial agency Metrolinx released a long-awaited transit funding plan in which Ms. Wynne had previously placed great stock. Its centrepiece was a one per cent sales tax increase that which, given the logistical difficulty of making it regional, would almost certainly have to be applied Ontario-wide.

Ms. Wynne always provides assurances that any such revenues would be spent around the province on infrastructure upgrades. But it does not require great imagination to foresee opposition politicians telling rural and small-town voters that however the Liberals promise to spend it, they are only being asked to pay more tax because of Toronto’s needs.

Evidently anticipating such arguments, Ms. Wynne used her address to argue that GTA infrastructure represents both danger and opportunity for the rest of the province. Traffic congestion there, she said, is costing Ontario $6-billion annually and counting. Conversely, beyond just “opening up vital trade corridors,” building new transit lines will create manufacturing jobs. As hard as she makes this pitch, though, Ms. Wynne seems to be hedging her bets as she tries to gauge the public response.

In her first couple of months in office, needing an issue to call her own if she faced a spring election, she appeared hell-bent on dedicated taxes or tolls. But rather than being the starting point for action, the Metrolinx report was greeted with a promise not for action, but for yet more study. Provincial officials now point out that they’d be hard-pressed to get controversial measures through the current minority legislature anyway, and hint that it will be next spring before a full plan is rolled out.

Ms. Wynne could decide to lean on funding mechanisms not yet on the table, such as a corporate tax increase that could prove more palatable to the NDP. She could scale back her ambitions, accepting more modest revenue streams to fund and pitch a narrower model for transit expansion. She could try to set up other levels of governments as scapegoats – blaming Prime Minister Stephen Harper for not adopting that national strategy, or Toronto’s city council for being obstructionist.

Perhaps none of that backtracking will be necessary: if she sells well enough this summer, if by-elections in places like London and Ottawa show positive responses to her leadership, or if Ontario is not already too divided along regional lines to make it work.

“I’m not afraid of this conversation,” Ms. Wynne said in her during her Ottawa speech. The really scary part might come when she tests her faith in her own ability to lead public opinion, by putting all those words about Toronto into action.

Follow on Twitter: @aradwanski

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