Premier Kathleen Wynne is vowing to charge ahead with a massive $34-billion transit-building plan, looking to leave her mark with one of Ontario’s most ambitious projects in a generation.
But with her grand plan generating opposition at Queen’s Park and the public divided on how to fund it, the Premier signalled she will move carefully and take up to a year to table final legislation.
Her government’s first budget passed Wednesday, and with her political future assured for a time, she will take full advantage of the breathing space.
She must work out a sales pitch to bring the public onside, get agreement on raising the money and determine whether a deal can be made with the opposition.
Already she has key allies in business circles and area mayor’s offices – but a staunch opponent in Toronto Mayor Rob Ford.
She is also risking the Liberals’ fortunes on a plan that will inevitably reach into taxpayers’ pockets.
“There is no doubt that we need to build transit so that we can grow the economy of the province,” she said Wednesday, at her first news conference since provincial transit agency Metrolinx unveiled its report on paying for new subways, light rail and commuter trains.
“There has not been a commitment by the provincial government in this province for decades to a dedicated, on-going build of transit.…We’re going to make that commitment.”
Sources close to the Premier say she has taken a great personal interest in the file. Unlike her predecessor, Dalton McGuinty, she has not shied away from saying that dedicated revenue – whether new taxes or tolls – will be necessary to fund all the transit the government wants to build.
Until earlier this month, the topic was a possible election issue. The Liberals framed it as a wedge against the New Democrats, who hold several transit-dependent ridings in inner-city Toronto. But with the NDP backing the budget and staving off a trip to the polls, Ms. Wynne is stepping back from the brink.
She and Finance Minister Charles Sousa have said in recent days that Metrolinx’s ideas – a 1-per-cent bump to the HST, a gas tax, parking charges for businesses and a higher levy on developers – are only suggestions. They will hold further consultations before coming up with a final plan, an exercise as much about building support for transit renewal as gathering input.
The government has a head start among the GTA’s movers and shakers, with suburban politicians, urban planners and the Board of Trade lining up.
“We have a political discussion ahead of us, where we find out who believes in magic and who believes in money,” said Rob Burton, mayor of the Toronto suburb of Oakville. “I feel a real sense of hope for the future.”
The plan has also won plaudits from other mayors, including Mississauga’s Hazel McCallion, Markham’s Frank Scarpitti and Burlington’s Rick Goldring. Toronto’s Mr. Ford, however, criticized the province for planning to raise revenues for its transit plan. “Ask yourself: What will my family have to give up to pay for these new taxes?” he said.
Jennifer Keesmaat, Toronto’s chief planner, urged the province to step on the gas.
“We’re so far behind that we need to be really bold and really ambitious,” she said. “My hope now is that there will continue to be momentum and boldness for proceeding. In part because we needed to do this 30 years ago.”
Support among the electorate is less clear. Polls in recent months have shown residents divided over how to pay for transit, with many outright opposed. And navigating the opposition parties will be even harder. The Progressive Conservatives flat-out rejected Metrolinx’s transit-building plan this week.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, meanwhile, has said corporations and the wealthiest Ontarians should take on the burden of paying for transit.
Ms. Wynne would not say whether she would try to cut a deal with Ms. Horwath. But the Liberals have left the door open to such an option – adding more business taxes in exchange for NDP support on the transit file – which would give the Premier a victory without fighting an election on it.
But if, in the end, it comes to a vote, Ms. Wynne offered a hint of how she would sell the plan on which she will stake much of her legacy.
“I know that no one wants to pay extra. I get that,” she said. “But at the same time, I know that they are struggling with the logistics of getting around in their lives.”
With a report from Oliver Moore