Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne is promising $29-billion in new spending on subways, highways and bridges over the next 10 years in a major infrastructure-building push ahead of a possible spring election.
The pledge is Ms. Wynne’s biggest move so far on one of her main policy priorities, a bid to smash the ever-worsening gridlock damaging the economy and definitively put her stamp on the province.
“For too many years, successive governments haven’t been prepared to make the investments to get this province moving,” she said Monday in a lunchtime speech to an audience of business and civic leaders at the Royal York Hotel. “I believe in tackling challenges head on.”
Roughly half the money will come from redirecting 7 1/2 cents per litre from current gas-tax revenues, plus the HST paid on the tax. The rest will be raised through new “revenue tools” – which could include taxes, tolls or asset sales – to be unveiled in the provincial budget expected next month.
The money will help fund the downtown relief subway in Toronto, a light-rail line in Mississauga, four-lane highways in Northern Ontario and the electrification of the GO regional rail network, among other projects, Ms. Wynne said.
The move was an about-face for the Liberals, who have long insisted there is no room in the existing budget to pay for more transit, and only new sources of revenue can raise the necessary cash. Monday’s announcement means the Grits will now take dollars out of other budget items to pay for transportation. But asked what other programs or projects will lose money as a result, Ms. Wynne would not say.
The decision does, however, reduce the likelihood of a major tax hike, taking a controversial issue off the table before the budget.
The Liberals control only a minority of seats in the legislature and need the backing of at least one other party to get their spending plan passed and avoid a trip to the polls. The Progressive Conservatives are gunning for a vote, leaving the NDP as Ms. Wynne’s only option. She called on that party to back her budget on the basis of the transit spending.
“We need a partner to put our plan in place,” she said.
The New Democrats, however, remained non-committal. In a statement, NDP House Leader Gilles Bisson said: “Liberals love to promise billions in new spending but they’re less good at explaining who’s going to pay and how it’s going to work.”
The NDP has mused about corporate-tax hikes as a possible method of getting the money to expand transit but have not put forward a comprehensive plan.
The Tories, meanwhile, are promising to build the downtown relief line, plus at least two suburban subway extensions, by diverting funds from elsewhere.
“If you went down to that subway station this morning and asked the people where they’d like their money spent, that billion and a half [the Liberals are] putting into all-day kindergarten each and every year, would they like it to go to transit … I think you’d get a clear answer,” PC MPP Doug Holyday said Monday outside busy Yonge-Bloor station.
Transit planners and civic leaders, meanwhile, welcomed Ms. Wynne’s promise of money, even though the amount for GTA transit works out to less than the $2-billion per year provincial agency Metrolinx says it needs to complete all its planned projects over the next 20 years.
“It’s an enormously positive day for building the infrastructure we need,” Metrolinx chair Robert Prichard said.
“Some of the key words that I heard today that excite me are around this being dedicated, around this being a long-range plan,” added Civic Action CEO Sevaun Palvetzian.
On top of the $29-billion, the province is already building the Eglinton LRT in midtown Toronto, an express train from Union Station to Pearson Airport and dedicated busways in suburban York Region.