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

MARCUS GEE

Tory’s road toll is bold, risky – and should be applauded by Toronto Add to ...

Ditherer. Master of vacillation. A human talking machine who can explore every side of an issue in one endless sentence and leave his listeners still scratching their heads about where he stands. This has been the characterization that has followed Toronto Mayor John Tory for many years, through both provincial and municipal politics.

Today he takes a step that could change that reputation for good. Proposing to impose highway tolls to pay for transit and road repairs is by far and away the boldest thing he has done since becoming mayor in 2014. It may be the boldest political move by any mayor since the creation of the modern city in 1998.

Read more: Toronto Mayor John Tory to call for road tolls on DVP, Gardiner Expressway

Read more: Road tolls: Will they actually reduce congestion?

No other mayor has had the audacity to charge motorists for taking to the road, not even that lover of all things green, David Miller, who mused about tolling the Gardiner Expressway and the Don Valley Parkway in his successful 2003 run for mayor of Toronto but backed way under the fire from, among others, his rival John Tory.

Making people pay for something they are getting for free is risky at any time. Making motorists pay for what many consider their God-given right to sail along an endless strand of asphalt without paying a cent is especially dangerous. Mr. Tory knows that this idea will be a red flag for many thousands of drivers who already feel overburdened by the cost of gas, car payments, insurance, licensing and all the rest. He is sure to face furious opposition from suburban politicians calling it another “war on the car.” Doug Ford, who says he may run against Mr. Tory in 2018, is surely spitting on his hands and rubbing them together right now. The Canadian Taxpayers Federation was out first thing Thursday morning with a release announcing a petition to oppose the Tory proposal.

Not for nothing, road tolls are often called the “third rail” of local politics. Touching the idea has always been considered suicidal. Now Mr. Tory is jamming his foot into the third rail with the force of Lionel Messi striking a soccer ball.

The proposal is all the more breathtaking given his own record on the issue. When Mr. Miller made those remarks in 2003 about tolling the Gardiner and DVP if senior governments didn’t hand over more money for public transit, Mr. Tory leaped on him for it, even sending costumed “highway robbers” out to mock the idea. Later, when he was out of politics, he called that stunt a mistake and said politicians should square with voters about the need to raise money for transit and other needs instead of pretending it would all come for free.

Yet when he ran for mayor again, there was no talk of tolls. His opponents will now ask why he didn’t propose the idea when he was running for office instead of springing it on the city now. It’s a good question.

But Mr. Tory and the city he governs find themselves in a tight spot. Toronto needs billions to pay for fixing its public housing, building new transit lines, restoring aged infrastructure, improving its parks system and a list of other pressing needs. The federal and provincial governments are helping, but their ability and willingness to keep on forking over has a limit. Toronto will have to come up with some of the money on its own.

Simply raising property taxes would be one way to do it, but Mr. Tory promised to keep tax increases within the rate of inflation. A recent paper from a respected University of Toronto think tank, the Institute on Municipal Finance and Governance, says that cities such as Toronto can’t rely on the property tax alone to cover their needs. Cities outside Canada, it notes, rely on all sorts of additional sources of revenues, from sales taxes to income taxes.

Highway tolls to pay for road maintenance and other needs are commonplace in many countries around the world. Toronto, of course, has its own tolled private expressway, the 407. People love to complain about paying the tolls but they take the highway in droves.

Tolling the highways would not only help pay for transit and road repairs, it would make people who have the option think twice about using their cars. Lower car use means less congestion on the roads and less harm to the environment, a big plus in an age when governments are trying to meet ambitious targets for cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

We have had decades of debate on highway tolls, an idea that has been kicked around in every election in memory. Now, miraculously, a mayor has committed to bringing them in, climbing way out on a limb in the process. More surprising still, that mayor is John Tory. Instead of reaching for a saw, Torontonians should cheer his courage. No one can call him a ditherer after this.

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Follow on Twitter: @marcusbgee

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