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Metrolinx tables higher taxes, tolls to pay for Ontario transit improvements

Passengers wait to board a GO train.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Drivers in the Toronto and Hamilton area could bear the brunt of expanding public transit.

The provincial agency Metrolinx has short-listed options to pay for the next generation of public transit, including a gas tax, tolls on designated highways and a parking levy.

The provincial agency Metrolinx has short-listed options to pay for expanding public transit, including a payroll tax, a half-cent-a-litre tax on gasoline and tolls on the 400-series highways.

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Metrolinx, which will make its final recommendations to the Ontario government by June, also proposes a hike in property taxes or the sales tax with the revenue dedicated to public transit projects.

There could also be new charges for every kilometre a vehicle travels, along with allowing drivers to pay to ride in the high occupancy vehicle lanes even if they have no passengers.

Metrolinx CEO Bruce McCuaig says the agency needs to come up with recommendations that would raise about $2 billion a year for public transit improvements.

Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak says people can't trust the Liberal government to spend money from new taxes or road tolls on public transit.

Senior figures with both Metrolinx and the provincial government have made it clear that the investment strategy is to include the most cost-effective and revenue-efficient tools, without consideration of whether they are politically palatable. After the plan is released the job of selling them to the public will begin.

The shortlist comes as the Toronto Region Board of Trade rolls out a new ad campaign drawing attention to traffic woes, part of increasing public chatter about congestion in southern Ontario. The city of Toronto and Metrolinx both have held public meetings on the issue. The lobby group Greater Toronto CivicAction Alliance is running a publicity campaign to draw attention to worsening commute times if nothing is done. And last month the regional board of trade released the four revenue tools preferred by its members in the business community.

At issue is how to fund 1,200 kilometres of transit expansion over the next generation. The ambitious plan would create a network vastly more extensive than people in the region now enjoy, putting more than 80 per cent of residents within two kilometres of a transit line. But it comes with a $50-billion price-tag, only one-third of which is currently funded.

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The choice of revenue tools promises to be a highly contentious decision for the provincial government, with various lobby groups and constituencies moving pre-emptively to say that certain ideas won't fly.

The board of trade advertising blitz doesn't advocate for the specific revenue tools it proposed last month, but for the importance of dedicated funding. Based around the theme of "I want to get traffic moving again," the radio, billboard and print campaign is expected to be seen or heard by tens of millions of times in the coming weeks. Board of trade CEO Carol Wilding said that there is emerging consensus on the scale of the problem, helping create a "perfect storm" for getting funding in place.

"The public is there, they're at a tipping point, they're ready," she said in an interview Monday. "So what this campaign does is really move on that momentum, and act on that tipping point, to get the public further in play, to say 'we know we need to do our part'."

Metrolinx has said that the unfunded portions of the plan will require $2-billion annually, though that number is seen as too low by many observers. The figure includes only capital costs and is not indexed to inflation.

The agency has been seeking public input on how to raise the money. It has not previously spoken about its preferred revenue tools, though at public meetings it has discussed examples used in other cities.

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About the Author

Oliver Moore joined the Globe and Mail's web newsroom in 2000 as an editor and then moved into reporting. A native Torontonian, he served four years as Atlantic Bureau Chief and has worked also in Afghanistan, Grenada, France, Spain and the United States. More


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