Toronto's history is littered with the ghosts of ambitious transit plans that foundered on the question of who should pay.
But as Metrolinx tests the public waters looking for ways to fund the next $34-billion in transit projects, they are finding a willingness among residents to pony up. Although the head of the provincial government agency acknowledges that those attending their sessions are a small slice of the population, these people suggest that taxes and tolls are no longer politically toxic.
Metrolinx has until June to come up with an investment strategy that details how to pay for a slate of projects that include a new downtown subway taking pressure off the the Yonge line, GO train expansion and improved transit in Hamilton, Brampton and Durham.
At a public consultation on the weekend, a number of participants suggested that a small increase in the sales tax would be the quickest and fairest way to raise the most money.
"You could have it tomorrow, you could literally start collecting it and using it tomorrow," said downtown resident Chris Drew. The consultant, who doesn't own a car, takes the GO system to visit his parents in the suburbs and uses a bike and transit to get around Toronto.
"Tolls should [be considered], but let's get the [revenue tools] that we can easily implement as soon as possible to start get the money flowing, to show people that action is possible," he said. "Because I think, understandably, the public is a little cynical and bitter and doesn't sometimes believe that we can actually make this happen. So let's get the shovels in the ground and let's start building things as quickly as possible. That means we need to start collecting revenue as quickly as possible."
An announced crowd of more than 160 came to Metro Hall Saturday afternoon – even as the city continued to dig out from its worst storm in five years – to discuss the so-called Next Wave of projects, and how to pay for them. It was one of a series of Metrolinx meetings being held across the region and was the second of the week in Toronto.
The free-wheeling discussions Saturday touched on issues of fairness, progressivism and whether revenue tools should be strictly about raising money or should try to modify behaviour as well. Several people warned, though, that it would be unrealistic and unfair to put in place measures that make driving harder or more expensive without giving people other options.
Metrolinx President and CEO Bruce McCuaig said that the ideas presented at the downtown session were fundamentally the same as heard at the earlier public meetings in the suburbs.
"There's a growing realization that if you want more infrastructure in this region, you have to find a new way to fund it and finance it," he said.
Mr. McCuaig has repeatedly pointed to a variety of revenue tools used in other cities and suggested the solution involves some combination of them.
Among the revenue options being presented for discussion at the sessions are increases to sales, property and fuel taxes, as well as road tolls and parking levies.
"When it's costing $6-billion due to gridlock, we have a crisis and we have to address it, urgently," warned midtown resident Harold Smith. "I think we should look at all of [the possible revenue tools]. Personally, I do favour road tolls. It's costly to set them up but … it would make a tremendous amount of money if the 401, just the part crossing the GTA, had a toll. And I'm not talking about huge tolls, just very small amounts. Just a very small slice." Road tolls have long been a controversial issue in the Toronto area, though.
Toronto Mayor Rob Ford came to power in part on his pledge to end what he called the "war on the car," the supposed efforts of downtown elites to make life harder for motorists. As recently as last summer, he dismissed road tolls to fund transit. And his counterpart in neighbouring Mississauga – veteran Mayor Hazel McCallion, who has said that "all options" should be on the table – has insisted that tolls could be applied only to new roads.