Kathleen Wynne may be ready to surprise a few people, including members of her own government, by getting the ball rolling on new revenues for public transit expansion faster than they expect.
The Ontario Premier has indicated that she will await the June release of a report by the transit-planning agency Metrolinx before endorsing specific new ways of raising funds. But a source familiar with the provincial budget that Finance Minister Charles Sousa will deliver on Thursday told The Globe and Mail that it will include a commitment to one new revenue stream.
The source hinted that the mechanism of choice, for now, would be introducing tolls to high-occupancy vehicle lanes – one of 11 revenue tools on a short list of options Metrolinx released in early April. Under that proposal, highway lanes that are currently open only to cars with more than one passenger would also be available to solo drivers who choose to pay.
In a broader interview this week discussing the first budget since she took office, Ms. Wynne was coy when asked whether it will include transit-funding specifics, pausing and laughing before responding.
“I don’t want to pre-empt Metrolinx’s process,” she said. “Having said that, I have been and will continue to be very clear that this is a priority for us.”
HOV tolls would be only a small component of the bigger revenue push that is in the works. By Metrolinx’s estimate, adding tolls to existing and yet-to-be-built lanes could generate up to $250-million of the $2-billion needed in new annual revenues to help modernize the Greater Toronto Area’s transportation infrastructure.
Still, putting the measure in the budget would be risky for a minority government that requires the support of the third-party New Democrats to survive the spring. NDP Leader Andrea Horwath has repeatedly signalled her opposition to new taxes or tolls.
Ms. Wynne’s Liberals could be expected to present it as a voluntary payment, setting it apart from other options on the Metrolinx list such as a new gas tax, regional sales tax or parking fees.
There may also be some incentive because implementing lane tolls would require upfront expenditure on technology that has not been used in the province.
The biggest incentive, though, might be political, with Ms. Wynne needing to move beyond talking about a file on which she is prepared to stake her party’s fortunes, particularly in the increasingly congested GTA.
“It’s very important to me that starting right now, we understand that there needs to be a plan for building transit, and I believe we need a revenue stream for that,” she said in the interview. “So whether we talk about an election this spring or next fall or next spring or in 2015, whenever an election comes, I’m going to be talking about the need for a dedicated revenue stream to build transit.”
Some members of Ms. Wynne’s caucus appeared surprised at the prospect of a specific revenue commitment before the budget. Officials for Ms. Wynne and Mr. Sousa would neither confirm nor deny that new tolls would be in the budget.