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Traffic starts to grow heavy on Highway 401 in Toronto on Thanksgiving Monday.

Matthew Sherwood

Residents of Greater Toronto and Hamilton are torn about paying new fees or taxes for improvements to public transit and roads, leaving policy-makers in an uncertain political position as they struggle to deal with the region's ever-worsening congestion.

That is the conclusion of a new Toronto Board of Trade/Globe and Mail/Nanos Research poll that suggests 34 per cent are outright against paying extra to upgrade transportation, while 28 per cent are outright in favour. Others fell somewhere in between, leaving the door open for further debate.

"This is a conversation the public is ready for – they're a bit ahead of the politicians," said Carol Wilding, president of the Toronto Board of Trade, arguing that the results put the onus on politicians to come up with ways of making it happen. "It's a very encouraging moment. We need leadership from all three levels of government."

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The poll results are being released on the same day the city of Toronto's executive committee – a cabinet-like panel chaired by the mayor – is scheduled to tackle a new report that floats 10 different methods for raising an additional $2-billion per year to fund a massive region-wide transit expansion. In June of next year, meanwhile, Ontario transit agency Metrolinx must provide a plan outlining how it will pay for future expansions to the transportation network.

And the discussion will certainly be fraught.

"What [the poll] shows is that this is actually quite a divisive issue. I'm not sure if there's really a political win when you wade into something like this because even when you look at the different regions, most of the regions are split," said Nanos Research president Nik Nanos.

The numbers suggest a few ways forward. If forced to pony up new cash to upgrade infrastructure, 27.1 per cent of respondents named road tolls as their first choice for revenue collection. An increase to the gasoline tax ranked second, with 15.8 per cent selecting it as their preference, followed by a hike in transit fares at 12.1 per cent.

That indicated a preference for charging drivers and transit riders directly, rather than spreading the pocketbook pain around with a traditional tax hike, Mr. Nanos said.

Paul Bedford, Toronto's former chief planner, said the region is so far behind in transportation infrastructure that no single method could realistically raise enough money on its own to fix the problems. Instead, a combination of avenues will be necessary.

And if members of the public are reluctant to fork over more money to fix the problems or politicians are jittery about imposing fees or hiking taxes, he said, there will be severe consequences for not taking action. The average commute, for instance, will jump from 80 minutes a day to 109 in 20 years.

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Even though residents across the region agree gridlock is worsening, respondents ranked investments in transit and roads (14.5 per cent) as much less urgent than spending on health care (56 per cent) or education (27.2 per cent.)

Those figures illustrate how difficult it could be for Premier Dalton McGuinty's minority government to implement roads tolls, new fees or tax hikes to pay for expanded public transit, a choice they will have to face next year when Metrolinx's report is due.

"The difficult thing is when we get into transportation issues and transit and investing in infrastructure, those are things that people naturally believe can be delayed, even though many times they can't be delayed," Mr. Nanos said. "But making sure that they have access to health care and that the education system is strong, those are more immediate priorities."

The random telephone survey of 1,000 residents of the Greater Toronto and Hamilton areas was conducted between Sept. 29 and Oct. 4. The poll, which used live operators and included cellphone numbers, is considered accurate to plus or minus 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

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