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Globe and Mail columnist Marcus Gee.
Globe and Mail columnist Marcus Gee.

MARCUS GEE

Shame on the toll critics – Tory needs all the support he can get Add to ...

Gord Perks is one of the strongest environmentalists on Toronto city council, with years of activism to his credit before he became a councillor in 2006. He is also a proud man of the left who has argued for years that city hall can’t solve its money problems by slashing spending and gutting services. As he and like-minded councillors see it, the city has a revenue problem, not a spending problem.

Read more: Road tolls: It’s time to say goodbye to Toronto’s free ride

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So you might expect Mr. Perks to cheer a bold proposal from Mayor John Tory to impose tolls on two major highways, the Gardiner Expressway and the Don Valley Parkway. Tolling would bring in hundreds of millions in new revenue to provide better public transit, something the left has wanted for years. It would also lead some motorists to leave their cars at home, cutting air pollution and greenhouse-gas emissions.

But instead of applauding, he and others like him are pulling a sour face. Mr. Perks says that tolls are a “giant distraction,” turning Toronto away from the much wider debate it should be having about how to pay its bills and help its poor. Mr. Tory, he says, “wants us all arguing amongst ourselves about whether tolling is good,” leaving the bigger problem unaddressed.

Shelley Carroll, a budget chief under former mayor David Miller, takes a similar line. She says it’s wrong to think tolls are some kind of “magic elixir” for all that ails Toronto. Though she admits tolls could have some upsides, such as making people adjust how they travel, she says they would punish low-income drivers and take years to implement, leaving the city struggling to make ends meet in the meantime. At the provincial level, NDP Leader Andrea Horwath is sounding skeptical about tolls, too.

Shame on her. Shame on them all.

Mr. Tory showed real political courage when he came out for tolls. He knew was taking a risk by asking motorists to pay a fee for driving these major thoroughfares. Trucking groups, some regional mayors and provincial Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown have already come out against him. He went ahead regardless, arguing that, after years of round-and-round debate about bringing in “revenue tools” to pay for the city’s growing needs, it was time to act. Good transit, he argues, does not come for free.

The left is his natural ally in this fight. Haven’t they been saying for years that the city should stop pretending that finding “efficiencies” would solve its budget woes? Haven’t they been saying the city needs to find the revenues to sustain itself?

Now, at long last, they have a mayor who is willing to take a stab at it. What is more, he is doing it in a way that would help two things they treasure: public transit and the environment. Politicians like Mr. Perks should be carrying Mr. Tory through the streets on their shoulders.

Instead they stand on the sidewalk, griping, as the parade goes by. He should do more. He should do something different. He should do something sooner. This is a classic example of making the perfect the enemy of the good.

It is wildly unrealistic to expect Mr. Tory to fix Toronto’s money problem at one stroke. Queen’s Park has shown no inclination to allow the city to have a sales tax, as Ms. Carroll suggests. Another suggestion of hers, reviving the unpopular vehicle registration tax, is a non-starter. A big rise in the property tax would help, but that would sting taxpayers, too, and experts on municipal finance argue the city should look at a mix of revenue sources.

If the left’s objection is that tolls are “regressive,” charging the poor man in his beater as much as the rich woman in her luxury car, then it would be far better to bring in rebates than to throw the whole idea out the door. Tolls are common in cities around the world, including Stockholm in ultra-progressive Sweden.

The mayor went with tolls not because it is an ideal solution but because it seemed the best option among those on offer. What is most important, and what the left is missing, is that he is doing something. He needs all the support he can get.

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Follow on Twitter: @marcusbgee

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