Ontario will take a big step toward dedicating long-term funding for transit construction by bringing in a limited system of road tolls.
The plan, to be unveiled in Thursday’s provincial budget, would allow solo drivers to use high-occupancy vehicle lanes on Toronto-area expressways in exchange for paying a toll. The lanes would remain free for vehicles with two or more people.
The money raised would help pay for the Big Move, a provincial strategy to build a network of badly-needed subways, light rail lines and dedicated bus corridors across Greater Toronto and Hamilton.
It is all part of a long-term, $35-billion infrastructure-building plan that will be highlighted in the budget.
“As we make these investments, we also need to maintain them. We need to make sure there’s a sufficient amount of resources to expand and make it more effective for all of us,” Finance Minister Charles Sousa said, describing HOV tolls as “a voluntary mechanism by which to allow people a choice, we’re giving them that choice.”
Later this month, provincial transit agency Metrolinx will outline a series of possible taxes, tolls and other fees to help pay for transit. But the government, which has made transit-building a priority, will move more quickly than that.
The lanes will take some time to set up, as the government must acquire transponders and other equipment for them.
And because they will be voluntary, they are not expected to raise all the revenue needed for transit construction. Metrolinx estimates it will need $2-billion annually to implement the Big Move.
Putting the revenue tool in the budget could be a risky move. The third-party New Democrats, whose support will determine whether the minority Liberal administration lives, have advocated against road tolls to pay for transit. Instead, they say, a bigger burden could be placed on large corporations.
“We do have big concerns with this signalling that the government continues to bring forward that they’re happy with people paying more and more and more, while they’re also happy with having corporations paying less and less and less and they’re happy with CEO salaries going higher and higher and higher,” NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said Wednesday.
However, she said she would wait to read the budget before making any decisions on it.
The Liberals have said that Ms. Horwath and others who want to avoid new taxes and tolls, such as Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, are wrong to think it is possible to build new transit without such revenue streams.
Mr. Sousa’s budget is expected to put an emphasis on building infrastructure. On top of the Big Move, it will also contain money to fix roads and bridges in rural communities.
The Liberals have already met several NDP budget demands, in whole or in part, including cutting auto insurance and creating a program to help young people find work.