Mayor Rob Ford says hell will freeze over before he supports new tolls or taxes to pay for better transit. People are taxed enough as it is, he insists, and government should cut wasteful spending before it reaches into their pockets for more.
“Let’s get every level of government in line and efficient and running like a well-oiled machine, then you can go to the taxpayers and say, ‘You know what? We have tightened up every single screw on this car, there is no more tightening up.’ Folks, we are far from that,” he said on Tuesday.
That will strike many voters as a convincing argument against transit taxes. No one can deny that governments in general, and the Liberal government at Queen’s Park in particular, are guilty of letting spending get out of hand. From cancelled gas plants to the scandal at Ornge, the examples of profligacy are legion. The mayor’s brother, Doug, says that a government with a budget as fat as $126-billion a year should have no trouble finding $2-billion, the annual amount required for its ambitious transit-expansion plan, the Big Move.
In principle, the Fords are right. Governments should be able to pay for transit out of their current means, just as they pay for hospitals, schools or roads. Toronto needs better transit to combat growth-strangling gridlock. In a perfect world, governments would simply curb their spending on other less urgent needs, make transit a priority and pay for it out of existing resources, not take it out of the hide of hard-pressed taxpayers.
But this is not a perfect world. The provincial government ran a deficit of about $10-billion last year. It does not expect to balance its budget until 2017-18. Like every other province, it is straining to rein in galloping health-care costs. How likely is it, in the real world, that a government with so many other demands on its resources will come up with a spare $2-billion a year for transit?
Even in richer times, governments often choke on the enormous cost of transit projects. Over and over they have cancelled or delayed plans to expand the system. The result is a start-and-stop pattern that has left Toronto’s mass-transit network far behind those in many other major cities.
That is why even many fiscal conservatives are coming around to the idea of creating a dedicated revenue stream for transit – funds that would be devoted specifically to paying for a consistent, methodical, multiyear build-out that would not stall with every shift of the political wind.
The Toronto Region Board of Trade, a group whose members often criticize the government for spending and taxing too much, is throwing its weight behind special transit levies. Its president, Carol Wilding, argues that cutting government waste alone just won’t do the trick.
City manager Joe Pennachetti says something similar. “The mayor and many councillors feel strongly that there is still potential for reducing expenditures elsewhere at the province,” he told reporters earlier this month. “That’s their opinion. I think from our viewpoint – a staff viewpoint – the dollars are so big that you could look at expenditure reductions to help minimize the potential tax increases, but it’s very difficult to fund $2-billion a year without some further revenues.”
Mr. Ford flatly rejects his advice. On Tuesday, the mayor led city council’s executive committee in voting to defer any more discussion of transit taxes until May 28 – conveniently, the day after the provincial transit agency, Metrolinx, meets to make its recommendations to Queen’s Park on the issue. Unless city council steps in to take up the debate (as it seems it may), Toronto will have no official input on this critical question.
It is the mayor’s right to oppose transit taxes, of course. But it is his responsibility to propose a realistic alternative. Simply cutting waste isn’t one. If we wait for governments to eliminate all waste before they fund a transit plan, hell will freeze over before we get more subways.