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Kathleen Wynne’s tolls-for-transit plan is bold, honest and politically risky

If you live in Toronto and haven't been paying much attention to Ontario's new premier, better start. Kathleen Wynne's campaign for new taxes or tolls to fund transit is a striking act of political leadership. Toronto's future as a thriving, mobile community depends on its success.

Take a moment to absorb how bold Ms. Wynne is being here.

For a generation and more, proposing road tolls to pay for transit and other transportation needs has been considered the equivalent of political suicide. No premier, mayor or other major political figure has dared to table the array of tolls and other levies that Ms. Wynne is now talking openly about.

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Dalton McGuinty, her predecessor, ran for the hills at the thought of angering motorists by tolling highways. Even David Miller, this city's transit-loving mayor in the 2000s, backed away from the notion of tolls in his first mayoral campaign. Now along comes Ms. Wynne. Not long after becoming Ontario's 25th premier in February, she started dropping hints about the need to find new ways to pay for transit. After all the craven ducking and weaving of the past, it seemed hard to believe. Was it just a trial balloon, or is she for real? She is.

At an event at the Spadina-subway extension site last month, she said straight out that "We need to create a new revenue stream" to pay for future transit projects. At a Toronto Region Board of Trade speech on Monday, she drove home the point, saying there was no extra money in the treasury for the massive investments required and that it was time to find new sources. Later in the week, she called reporters to her office for one-on-one interviews on the subject, telling them that people are fed up with gridlock and want action. "Somebody has to take on the difficult politics … and I'm going to take this on," she told the Toronto Star.

Oh, it's bold all right. Consider the odds against her. She leads a minority government and might have to face the voters any day. Both opposition leaders, Tory and NDP, are threatening to jump all over her if she persists with her campaign for transit-funding tools. So is the mayor of Toronto, whose reaction to the idea is to make a retching noise.

Polls show that voters are far from convinced by her arguments. A new poll for the CivicAction group showed that while 71 per cent of residents of the Greater Toronto and Hamilton region are indeed fed up with gridlock, just 43 per cent think new sources of funding are needed for The Big Move, the $50-billion Metrolinx plan to build out the transit network. Thirty-nine per cent think existing government funds should cover the cost. Another poll this month showed that only about a third of Toronto-region residents favour new taxes and tolls for transit.

Still, it's encouraging that a premier should take the transit dearth so seriously that she is willing to go this far out on a limb. And, who knows, she might succeed. Residents know that Toronto is decades behind many other major cities in building a mass-transit network. They know transit is expensive and that the money has to come from somewhere.

People like a leader who takes a stand. Ms. Wynne might not enjoy the comparison, but Margaret Thatcher showed that. The new premier is passionate about this issue and it shows. She is convincing when she says that the Toronto region cannot afford more do-nothing years. Now that she has nailed her colours to the mast, voters are beginning to take notice. They might not like the message at first, but many will rally around as the debate begins in earnest and she starts to make her case.

"I'm impressed with her commitment and her frankness and her honesty," says Adam Vaughan, the downtown city councillor. He remembers what Lady Thatcher once said: "If you want something said, ask a man; if you want something done, ask a woman."

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When it comes to making progress on transit, Kathleen Wynne may be just the woman Toronto needs.

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