TORONTO – Premier Kathleen Wynne says she’s not afraid to fight an election and make transit infrastructure — as well as the politically toxic taxes and levies that would likely go with it — a major part of her platform.
“I’m prepared to go to an election at any point and have the importance of infrastructure be a central part of my campaign,” she said Tuesday in Belleville, Ont.
Infrastructure means different things in different parts of the province, from municipal roads and bridges to building public transit in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area, Wynne said.
But everyone has a vested interest in finding new ways to fund those improvements, she said.
“We have to build transit in order to be able to grow the economy, and growing the economy in the GTHA is integral to growing the economy across the province,” Wynne said.
“So I’m quite prepared to say that it is necessary for us to build transit going forward, it’s necessary to do it in an incremental way and we need revenue streams in order to do that.”
Metrolinx, the provincial transportation agency, has laid out 11 ways to help pay for transit improvements in the Toronto-Hamilton region, including a hike in the sales tax, tolls on 400-series highways and a half-cent-a-litre tax on gasoline.
That means everyone in Ontario could end up paying for those projects, even if they don’t use the system.
Other options include a hike in property taxes, a new payroll tax, parking levies, a new charge for every kilometre a vehicle travels and allowing drivers to pay to use high-occupancy vehicle lanes even if they have no passengers.
All the revenues would be dedicated to public transit projects, with 25 per cent carved out for municipalities in the area to spend on local transit and transportation projects, the agency said.
Metrolinx, which released the short list Tuesday, will make its final recommendations to the Ontario government by June.
About $2 billion a year is needed to fund public transit improvements in the area, said Metrolinx CEO Bruce McCuaig.
The proposed measures may be unpopular with voters, but Ontario can’t afford to wait any longer, he said. People want action and governments must respond.
“Going forward with a slow approach in dealing with our congestion challenge isn’t going to be a sustainable path for us,” McCuaig said.
“People are impatient for results. They want to see these kinds of issues dealt with.”
People are willing to pay more to build transit, Wynne said during an earlier stop in Peterborough.
“If the question is, ‘Do we want to have the right infrastructure in place … so that goods and people can move around the GTHA?’ The answer is yes. Everyone wants that,” she said.
Not Toronto’s tax-allergic mayor. Rob Ford reacted the way many drivers likely did when they heard the recommendations: pretending to vomit.
“People aren’t ready for new taxes yet, they just aren’t,” he said. “So I can’t support any of these new taxes.”
Ford’s reaction is “unfortunate,” Wynne said.
“I think this is a very important conversation because the reality is, there’s not a mayor or councillor in the GTHA — or, I would suggest, in any urban centre around Ontario — who doesn’t believe that we need more dollars for infrastructure and transit.”
But municipalities outside the Toronto region aren’t exactly thrilled with the idea of paying for its transit projects either, according to Allan O’Dette, president and CEO of the Ontario Chamber of Commerce.
“I’ve heard that,” he said. “I’ve heard that comment from many.”
There’s also a “concern” between the 416 and 905 areas about who pays, he said.
Transportation Minister Glen Murray said the government will wait for the final report before making any decisions about raising taxes or levies.
Although the federal government administers the harmonized sales tax, there is the possibility of collecting a regional sales tax, rather than spreading out the tax burden across the province, he said.
“I would think that if there is revenue being generated from outside the GTHA, then I think in reasonable equity, you would see that money going into the communities outside the GTHA,” Murray said in an interview.
Opposition Leader Tim Hudak left the door open to new tolls, taxes or levies if the Progressive Conservatives form the next government.
“Here’s the bottom line: any kind of new tolls or taxes should be your last resort, not your first instinct, and we need to be very, very cautious about Liberal politicians who look all too eager to grab more money,” he said.
No matter what measures are implemented — whether it be road tolls or a new tax — they will likely be permanent, though they may need to be recalibrated periodically, said McCuaig.
“The need for investment doesn’t stop at the next-wave projects,” he said.