Skip to main content

Southbound traffic on Spadina Ave. (south of Front St. West) is already heavy mid afternoon as commuters head for the Gardiner Expressway as they leave Toronto on April 9, 2013.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Toronto, Hamilton and the surrounding municipalities need to make up for lost time. For about two decades, not nearly enough was done to expand the region's public transit and highway infrastructure in proportion to its economic growth. Long commute times and maddening congestion are the natural and inevitable results.

In those decades, the only major improvement has been Highway 407, which opened in 1997. As an electronic toll road, privately owned under a 99-year lease (through the CPP, almost all adult Canadians own a bit of it), it is a good model for the future.

On Monday, Metrolinx, the Ontario agency set up to deal with this deficit, delivered its ambitious, $50-billion proposal, of which $16-billion is already committed. Premier Kathleen Wynne and her cabinet would be rash to accept the whole plan as it now stands. They should choose the elements that are essentially user fees. They should look diligently for money from already existing revenues, eliminating some less important expenditures, and reconsider some of the less vital projects proposed.

In the dialect spoken by such entities as Metrolinx, "tool" is a four-letter word meaning "revenue source." Metrolinx has chosen four such tools, out of a short list of 11, and in turn out of a longer list of 25.

The most dubious of the four revenue sources that Metrolinx recommends is an additional percentage point of the Harmonized Sales Tax. This week, Jim Flaherty, the federal Finance Minister, wrote to his Ontarian opposite number, Charles Sousa, reminding him that under the federal-provincial HST agreement, the rate cannot vary among regions in the province.

For the provincial government, political practicality must be a major factor. The 2013 budget has already passed first reading; some version of the Metrolinx plan is to be expected in the 2014 budget. Tim Hudak and the Progressive Conservatives will presumably still be hell-bent to defeat the Liberals, and bring about an election. Andrea Horwath and the New Democratic Party will doubtless oppose any sales-tax increase and will favour higher taxation of corporations and higher-income earners.

But even if in 2014 Ms. Wynne and her colleagues want an election because they think they can win a majority, they will surely not be so self-destructive as to go to the voters of Ontario with a 14-per-cent HST, for the benefit of what is now being called the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area.

Mayor Rob Ford of Toronto was characteristically simplistic when he declared on Tuesday his opposition to "the province's plan to slap new taxes on the back of hardworking families in this great province." But he at least touched on a significant difference of principle. A program to relieve and reduce traffic congestion should be based on fees or charges for value actually received, rather than on general taxes imposed (though not necessarily "slapped," in Mr. Ford's words) on the general population, no matter what their usage of public transit and highways. For that reason, Metrolinx is right to oppose higher property taxes.

The other three so-called tools can reasonably be classified as user fees, including Metrolinx's proposed increase of the fuel and gasoline tax by five cents a litre, even though it bears the hated name of "tax."

So also, the proposed levy for non-residential parking lots clearly bears a relationship to those who use those spaces.

The justification for additional development charges may be more tenuous, but a better flow of traffic and transit passengers will clearly benefit new residential and commercial developments.

The Metrolinx report does not explain its rejection of other revenue sources. Highway tolls would be the "tool" with the most direct relationship to real value given to commuters. Ms. Wynne has rightly canvassed this option. Mr. Hudak objects to charging taxpayers for highways for the building of which they have already paid. But the Gardiner Expressway, which runs parallel to Lake Ontario, illustrates a contrary point; those same taxpayers would now greatly benefit from its rebuilding.

In a KPMG review appended to the Metrolinx proposal, the only real objection to highway tolls is the length of time for the building of equipment to electronically record who is using them, but that is no great disadvantage; the whole Metrolinx project is be spread over several years in any case.

Furthermore, charges for public transit should take greater account of distance travelled. Many major cities have a number of zones, including Vancouver; indeed, the financing of the Toronto Transit Commission has never quite recovered from the ending in 1973 of a two-zone system in what was then called Metropolitan Toronto.

The public should be assured that the new money for transit and transport will not be swallowed up in general revenue; these dedicated revenues should go to a specific fund, and should be spent on schedule.

Without the extra percentage point on the HST – projected to deliver $1.3-billion a year – Ontario may not able to achieve everything it would like to do, and ideally should do, to overcome gridlock and to shorten commuting times.

But it is hardly practical to compensate for two lost decades over the course of another 20 years, a period that will generate its own needs for transportation infrastructure. That would be a double, oppressive burden. Great progress can nonetheless be made in public transit and highways with market-oriented revenue sources.