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Business groups push Ontario government on traffic congestion

C.D. Howe estimates that gridlock costs $11-billion annually to the regional economy.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Having employees, supplies and products stuck in GTA traffic is hurting business so severely, major industry associations are actually urging government to raise taxes.

That is, with the stipulation the new revenues be used for roads and rails.

The Toronto Region Board of Trade and the Ontario Chamber of Commerce – typically no friends of the taxman – say massive investment is necessary to keep people and products moving.

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A report last year by the C.D. Howe Institute estimated gridlock costs the regional economy $11-billion annually.

"We have 12,000 members, and this is their No. 1 issue," says Carol Wilding, president and CEO of the Toronto Region Board of Trade. "Our members have asked us to be bold."

The 60,000-strong Ontario Chamber of Commerce consulted with several hundred business leaders about traffic congestion last year.

"We look to government to make investments that produce real returns for the economy," said Josh Hjartarson, vice-president of policy and government relation. "Now we are saying, 'Enough is enough. We need to start reinvesting.'"

Last week, the Liberal government laid out Moving Ontario Forward, a $29-billion province-wide plan that arches over top of the regional plan by Metrolinx, called The Big Move. But it stopped short of announcing meaningful new revenue tools to finance transit development.

"We're not where we need to be yet, but it's progress," says Wilding, whose organization sponsored a Let's Break the Gridlock public awareness campagin to complement less-visible political lobbying. "Maybe with a majority government they will be willing to move faster and make some politically unpopular decisions."

Last year, the board recommended a parking space levy and increased regional sales and fuel taxes to raise the $2-billion required to fund The Big Move annually.

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"That was a first," says Wilding. "You wouldn't expect businesses to be the first ones to put their hands up and say, 'We are willing to pay more.'... It's a big talent issue. Businesses have a lot of challenges trying to move employees around the region. It's affecting how people make choices about where they want to work, and where they want to live."

The Chamber recommended highway tolls and a fuel tax over other revenue streams such as property tax increases.

Hjartarson said the message is getting through.

"No party came out against transportation investments in the last provincial election. They might differ on how to pay, but it was a question of how, not if, we pay."

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