For the next year, Premier Kathleen Wynne will be fighting for transit expansion on two fronts.
The first will be a push for public support, as she works to convince municipal councils and their constituents that a massive transportation construction plan – funded by new taxes and fees – is desperately needed in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area.
The second will be at Queen’s Park, where her minority Liberals must secure the support of at least one other party to pass the legislation needed to move forward with $34-billion worth of new subways, light-rail lines and commuter train service.
And early indications are that the latter battle will be far tougher than the first.
With the release Monday of provincial transit agency Metrolinx’s recommended methods of raising cash – a 1-per-cent hike to the HST, a fee for businesses that have off-street parking, a gasoline tax and higher development charges – the ball is now in Ms. Wynne’s court.
Her government has struck a panel to start consultations on the plan with municipal leaders and Ontarians. She will present final legislation on the transit plan by spring of next year.
“The state of transit and the reduction of congestion in this region are paramount in terms of the possibilities for economic growth for the region and for the province,” Ms. Wynne said Monday in the legislature. “It’s paramount in terms of improving people’s quality of life.”
She will have the support of many suburban mayors hungry for anything that will break traffic congestion in their towns. Mississauga’s Hazel McCallion, who is championing a light-rail line on her city’s main transit artery, lauded Metrolinx’s ideas.
“We have two choices: Do nothing and let the gridlock grow, or do something and help pick up the tab,” she said. “I think this plan that they’ve come up with is an excellent plan.”
Burlington Mayor Rick Goldring said the feedback he’s had from constituents suggests they largely support pushing forward with transit expansion: “People realize that congestion is a major issue, and they realize that new revenue is required to invest in transit.”
If Ms. Wynne opts to move forward with an HST increase, she will have to determine how it will work outside the GTHA. In the rest of the province, the money would have to be dedicated to other projects. Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson suggested his city could use the dollars to fund its own transit plans. “Politicians don’t like to go around promising to raise taxes, but in order to be sincere, you have to ensure that the public know you can’t have it both ways,” he said. “You can’t promise increased transit and not come up with a way of paying for it.”
Selling the opposition on the plan will be harder. The Progressive Conservatives rejected Metrolinx’s recommendations outright: “Why is the immediate reaction to go to the consumer and ask them to dig even deeper? Folks, they can’t afford it, we’re not going to ask them to do it,” Tory MPP Frank Klees said.
New Democrat Leader Andrea Horwath, meanwhile, favours putting more of the burden onto the backs of big corporations.
“Ontarians don’t have the capacity, the financial capacity to dig into their pockets once again,” she said. “We have seen corporate taxes reduced in this province year after year after year.”
But the Liberals hold out hope they can cut a deal with the NDP once consultations are done – much as they recently did on the budget. In that case, Ms. Horwath agreed to vote in favour of it in exchange for policy concessions from the government.
“The NDP have a huge opportunity to critique what Metrolinx has done, to support what they may want to support and to come up with credible alternatives and alternative financing,” Transportation Minister Glen Murray said. “We’ve had a good relationship with them, it’s been a constructive dialogue, it’s led to some positive change that we’ve been able to agree on and there’s an opportunity to do that again.”
Winning the first battle may, in the end, help Ms. Wynne with the second. Markham Mayor Frank Scarpitti suggested that the best way to ensure Queen’s Park moves ahead with transit construction is for locals to pressure all three parties, whether during an election campaign or before. “No one can be let off the hook – they have to have a transit plan that makes sense,” he said. “We cannot afford to wait.”