When Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne kiboshed Toronto City Council’s plan to implement road tolls on the Gardiner Expressway and Don Valley Parkway, it was clear to anyone who pays attention to politics why she did it. With her approval ratings in the gutter, and a chance to play the hero for suburban drivers who would bear the brunt of tolls, the Premier was trying to avoid more damage to herself or the Liberals with an election just over a year away. Not coincidentally, these are the ridings that some of her Cabinet ministers represent.
Despite her cowardice, the Premier was well within her legal right – our Constitution allows provincial leaders to make decisions on behalf of municipalities. With a bruised ego, Mayor Tory slogged through an awkward press conference, saying he wished to stop being treated like “a little boy going up to Queen’s Park in short pants.” Excuse me for not buying the sound bite or the sensational headlines that “Thanks to Wynne, Toronto is back to square one: not enough money.” Please. Mayor Tory certainly does not deserve your remorse. During the first two years of his mandate, he has made a number of policy choices that have been more costly than the expected revenue from road tolls – and he should be held accountable.
The expected annual revenue of $200 million from the $2 road tolls looks downright paltry in comparison to the $33 billion in unfunded capital the City faces. A substantial portion of this unfunded capital exists because of decisions Tory himself made, and the lost revenue from road tolls is closer to a rounding error than to a serious attempt at funding Toronto transit. Compare this amount to the cost of the Mayor’s ever-more-expensive pet projects, like rebuilding the Gardiner and the ludicrous Scarborough subway extension, both of which have been saddled with cost increases since their original announcements (see here and here). The irony, of course, is that Tory had no problem using politics to pass those policies, but cries foul when the same tactics are used against him. Even the decision to pass road tolls was political theatre. The entire idea of taxing these two specific highways was to have non-Torontonian suburbanites pay for their use and maintenance, since it is largely them who travel by car into the city.
In 2003, during a mayoral campaign against David Miller he would eventually lose, Tory was quoted saying that road tolls were “highway robbery.”
Following the announcement, I saw many cynical comments on Facebook suggesting that Tory may have wanted the issue to play out this way all along. In 2003, during a mayoral campaign against David Miller he would eventually lose, Tory was quoted saying that road tolls were “highway robbery.” Pun aside, Tory left out any mention of road tolls in his 2014 campaign and instead doubled down on SmartTrack, a light rail train system that was aimed at improving, expanding, and electrifying the existing GO Transit rail system. After many iterations and feasibility reports clearly showing it really wasn’t feasible, the plan has since been derailed. (I’ll see myself out.)
With all this in mind, the suggestion that this was all for show is compelling, though on this particular issue I will give Tory the benefit of the doubt. I don’t think he proposed this policy just to have the province quash it so he could look like a hero. People change their minds all the time (see: Wynne, Premier Kathleen), and the Mayor deserves some credit for looking past his previous comments to propose a policy that is relatively progressive – especially compared to the policy positions of our last mayor, who obsessed over the supposed war on cars.
Of course, Tory is also an intelligent individual and an experienced politician from his own days at Queen’s Park, so he would have known the Premier’s powers as much as he knows the powers bestowed on him by the City of Toronto Act (COTA). And yet, he seems to take the latter less seriously, because instead of raising property taxes above the rate of inflation to reverse decades of underfunding, he’s set to back a silly hotel tax that isn’t even allowed under COTA (see Exhibit 1.1 on page 7).
With road pricing strategies, Tory put a solid foot forward–but this is hardly a slam dunk. Tolling only two highways in a large, connected city like Toronto would surely divert alarming amounts of toll-averse drivers onto city streets with little capacity to serve them. If Tory really wanted to make a splash for revenue and the environment (though the motivation for the latter is less clear), congestion pricing is a substantially better policy. Under such a scheme, any driver who enters a certain delineated boundary would be required to pay a toll, whether the driver was taking a highway or a back road. The toll rates can be set up to vary during peak times in order to modify behaviour, and decrease congestion when traffic is expected to be heaviest.
If Tory really wanted to make a splash for revenue and the environment (though the motivation for the latter is less clear), congestion pricing is a substantially better policy.
London and Stockholm have both implemented this policy successfully, though much of their success can also be attributed to the multi-modal transportation possibilities for residents of those cities. By imposing a strict price on driving and simultaneously re-modelling some streets to allow for more pedestrian and cycling networks, Toronto would experience decreased congestion, cleaner air and better health outcomes since more residents would take active routes to work. These are called “complete streets,” and some have been very successfully implemented in Ontario already. Toronto should aspire to do the same, rather than keep playing a chicken-and-egg game of which comes first, the money or the transit.
For all the musings about Premier Wynne’s lack of political courage, Mayor Tory should look in the mirror and evaluate the tools at his disposal – especially the ones he hasn’t been using. Maybe then he’ll devise a plan that could actually raise some money for Toronto transit.
Jonathan Kates is a 2017 Master of Public Policy candidate at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy & Governance, and he holds a bilingual Bachelor’s degree in International Studies and Sociology from Glendon campus at York University. His policy areas of interests are cities, social policy, innovative approaches to governance and service delivery, and how individuals are influenced by their environments. When not perusing the internet, Jonathan is probably checking his fantasy basketball team…ok, teams.