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Toronto 74% in Toronto area support small sales tax hike if money goes to transit: poll

Residents of the Greater Toronto Area overwhelmingly support a local sales tax dedicated to building public transit and other infrastructure, a new poll suggests.

The survey, conducted by Environics for urban affairs magazine Spacing, found that 74 per cent of respondents backed the idea of paying half a percentage point more in sales tax if the money raised was funnelled into transit. Only 26 per cent said they were opposed.

Strong majorities of respondents in both the city of Toronto and its suburbs favoured the tax: the lowest level of support was in Halton Region west of the city, where 67 per cent still supported the concept.

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The poll's suggestion that 905 voters back the tax may be its most important finding. The suburbs are the key battleground in provincial and federal elections. They also have less transit infrastructure and far lower ridership numbers than the city.

The finding comes after a months-long battle at Toronto city hall over whether to put $8.4-billion dollars into a subway-building plan or spend it on four light rail lines.

Environics' Darren Karasiuk said this debate has made people more willing to consider a tax to pay for transit expansion.

"I can't think of a time transit and transportation has received as much attention as they have in the last few months," he said. "The public recognizes this as an issue and they're ready to think and have a meaningful conversation about it."

Los Angeles and area are the model for a transit tax. A half a percentage point sales tax created in 2008 is projected to raise a total of $40-billion over 30 years to expand public transportation and highways.

Meanwhile, Ontario transit agency Metrolinx has an ambitious plan to build several new rapid transit lines and improve service on others across Greater Toronto and Hamilton. But it doesn't have the money to pay for most of these projects, including a light rail line in Peel Region, all-day service on every GO Train corridor and an extension of the Yonge subway to Richmond Hill.

Metrolinx CEO Bruce McCuaig has said the agency is looking at options from around the world – including taxes and road tolls – to raise the money. The agency must come up with a funding plan by June 2013, after which it will have to be reviewed by municipal and provincial politicians.

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The tax question has been a political hot potato: some Toronto councillors floated the idea during recent transit debates, but Mayor Rob Ford was against it.

The online poll's sample size is 1,436 people, controlled for regional and other factors to represent the demographic makeup of the GTA.

They were asked: "In 2008, the Los Angeles regional government held a binding referendum that asked residents if they would support a 0.5% increase to the L.A. County sales tax for 30 years, with the proceeds – estimated at around $40-billion – dedicated to rapid transit and some road infrastructure. If this sort of tax – with the proceeds clearly dedicated to transit and local infrastructure – was introduced in your municipality, would you support or oppose it?"

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