The people who will benefit from new transit infrastructure are the ones who should pay for it, Premier Kathleen Wynne says.
In an interview at her office on Wednesday, Ms. Wynne told The Globe and Mail that people elsewhere in the province shouldn’t be asked to help finance projects to ease gridlock in and around the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area.
“I really want there to be a direct connection between people who are using the infrastructure and the people who are paying for it,” she said, addressing a concern that the taxpayers outside the region might be on the hook.
The Premier warned last month that, without new taxes or tolls, badly needed infrastructure will never see the light of day, and that her minority Liberal government – which is battling a deficit – has no extra cash to contribute.
Ms. Wynne said that, despite past statements that she is willing to fight an election on transit, she doesn’t need a new mandate to pursue the $34-billion transit expansion plans for the region even as she acknowledged the political difficulty in deciding where and how to get the money.
“The reason I say that we can act and move ahead on this is that we have had a very clear mandate to build transit,” she said. “I really believe this is an urgent enough issue. People know it’s an urgent issue. We’ve been investing in transit. There’s been no indication from anyone that they want us to stop investing in transit, quite the opposite.”
In May, the regional transit agency Metrolinx will release its strategy for financing a generation of expansion. Although its recent shortlist of money-raising options – which included gas and sales taxes, road tolls, parking levies and development charges – was mostly specific to the GTHA, many could be broadened.
Metrolinx has proposed a list of projects as the next wave of its so-called Big Move, the largest infrastructure plan in decades. Some members of the public have expressed confusion about the plan, though, and polling has showed that many of the revenue tools are controversial. Politicians and voters have also raised concerns about both the scale of the spending and the choice of projects.
Ms. Wynne spoke to The Globe during an increasing drumbeat of concern over congestion in the Toronto area.
On Wednesday, a report from TD Bank cited transportation and infrastructure problems as an albatross around the region’s neck. The bank has repeatedly called for new revenues – and some of the same methods Metrolinx is considering – for transit.
“I think we can implement these taxes without a major negative hit to the economy,” Derek Burleton, TD vice-president and deputy chief economist, said in a visit to The Globe and Mail.
An analysis for the Toronto Region Board of Trade has pegged the productivity loss as a result of congestion at $6-billion annually, a figure projected to rise to $15-billion by 2031. Business and civic groups are ramping up their advocacy for new revenue tools to corral traffic.
But there are sharp disputes about how best to finance a solution. Although a number of 905 mayors have expressed support for road tolls, once considered the third rail of southern Ontario politics, the same leaders have said there is no room for a property tax increase. Both options are on the Metrolinx shortlist.
Once Metrolinx brings forward its investment strategy, a round of consultations can begin. The agency is expected to base its revenue proposals on what makes sense economically. Determining which of the revenue tools are acceptable to voters will be the politically difficult task of the government.
Opposition leaders have been quick to rule out certain revenue tools. But Ms. Wynne again insisted on keeping her own counsel as the process runs its course.
“I think it’s important that we hear the economic arguments … in an environment where we haven’t overshadowed the process with political concerns,” she said. “Because there are myriad political concerns in this area, it’s very contentious, and so I think, to the extent that we can have a debate about the economic validity of particular tools and particular tactics, I think that’s what we should do. And that’s why I don’t want to pre-empt the discussion.”