The tangled political machinations around road tolls, and transit funding more generally, have taken yet another unexpected twist. Around seven o'clock last night I got a tip that Premier Kathleen Wynne was going to announce that she is putting the kibosh on Toronto’s plans to make drivers pay tolls when they use the two major highways the city is responsible for — the Gardiner Expressway and the Don Valley Parkway — and put the revenue toward transit.
Even though the idea has been discussed for years, and city council voted on the plan back in December, Wynne has never actually taken an official public position on the issue until now. But she had certainly left a ton of hints that new transit would require new funding sources, and that she would let Toronto manage its own fiscal affairs.
Almost four years ago, in a speech at the Toronto Region Board of Trade, Wynne said: “I've been very clear that we need a dedicated revenue stream [for transit]. I'm very clear that if we're going to build transit, we need that funding in place.”
Last month, once Toronto’s plans were formalized, Wynne seemed quite onside — especially after PC leader Patrick Brown announced he’d reject the tolling scheme if he were premier. "It's not surprising that the Leader of the Opposition — who has no plan for building transit or for building transportation infrastructure, and no plan for where the funding would come from — would be calling on to us take unilateral action against the city of Toronto," she said in the legislature. "We're not going to do that."
And a day later, at a press conference: “I think that it’s important that they have the ability to raise the money to augment [provincial funding].”
So all signs pointed to Wynne letting Toronto do its thing.
Moreover, the previous Liberal government under Dalton McGuinty gave Toronto additional powers that other municipalities in Ontario don’t have, recognizing the capital city's special challenges and needs. But there is one little hitch in the fine print of that new law: those extra powers don't allow it to introduce road tolls unilaterally. If Toronto wants to toll those highways, it still needs the province to sign off.
Again, the assumption has always been that Wynne would do so. After all, she had developed an excellent working relationship with Mayor John Tory — even more remarkable given that she defeated Tory in her Don Valley West riding in the 2007 provincial election, when the current mayor was the leader of the Ontario PC Party.
But then the premier started to get squeezed on all sides. Patrick Brown’s opposition to the tolls may have been seen as a bit crass, trying to curry favour with voters in the 905 ridings who would be hit by them much more so than 416 dwellers.
Brown, however, was very vague about how he’d replace the $300 million the city would forego if it didn't get tolling. NDP leader Andrea Horwath also came out against the toll, but at least she committed to replacing the revenue from provincial coffers, making the city whole again.
This created a dilemma for the premier. Had Wynne respected municipal autonomy and given Toronto the right to toll, she’d have been politically crucified by the two other party leaders, and continued to take hits from her own 905 MPPs, even though technically, all she was doing was assenting to someone else’s decision. But had she banned Tory’s tolling plan, she ran the risk of alienating the mayor and sticking her nose into local matters that were none of her business, all in the name of sucking up to suburban voters whose ridings she’s desperate to keep in the Liberal column. (The Liberals have been spectacularly strong in the 416 for four straight elections now. But elections are won in the 905 ridings, where voters are far more fickle and where constituencies are always in play.)
When I broke this story on Twitter last night, admittedly with only the broad brush strokes of the announcement and none of the accompanying details around financial compensation for Toronto, the firestorm of reaction came fast and furious, much of it critical.
Even if she replaces the money, this “misses the point,” tweeted Richard Joy, executive director of the Urban Land Institute. The opportunity for Toronto to have “greater fiscal autonomy/less reliance” on the province was being missed.
There were also concerns about the policy implications, in addition to the finances. “Tolls [are] not only a revenue tool but a traffic reduction tool” as well, tweeted John Voss. “[The premier] needs to replace that lost element too.”
Toronto city councillor Joe Mihevc echoed that sentiment: “Road tolls are a proven tool to manage congestion, support sustainability and raise revenue for transit. This rejection is a step backwards.” He then added: “Whatever happened to respect for local democracy?” and, even more vehemently, "Well, there's a kick in the head to Toronto Council's authority."
But there were tweets of approval as well.
But as we discovered soon after, money has the ability to solve almost everything in politics. Word began to spread that, yes, the premier was killing the toll plan, but she would pony up plenty of cash for the capital city, thereby at least dealing with the city’s fiscal problems, if not the issues around local autonomy and traffic flow.
Toronto’s tolling plan was always a tough sell outside the 416. Mississauga mayor Bonnie Crombie, who’s a long-time personal friend of Tory’s, still gently but publicly criticized her counterpart for approving a policy that would have had an impact on citizens beyond Tory’s own 416 boundaries — namely, on Crombie’s constituents, who use the Gardiner to commute far more than city dwellers do. Today, before Wynne's official announcement, Crombie told me that "we need to have a conversation about long term, dedicated, sustainable revenue tools for all cities. There must be a level playing field for all cities."
At the end of the day, this is one of those stories where so many people can claim victory, which of course is the kind of story politicians love most.
Wynne staved off a GTA caucus revolt by protecting 905 motorists from new charges. Brown and Horwath can claim their longstanding opposition helped the premier make the decision, despite her previous, apparent openness to road tolls.
But the biggest winner may be the mayor of Toronto, who risked his considerable popularity to bring in road tolls, only to see substantial new revenue come into the city without actually having to implement any new fees or taxes himself.
Tory is not thrilled at having his council’s decision overturned, to be sure: last night, shortly after I tweeted the news, his office responded with a deeply concerned press release: "If the Ontario government has decided to deny a regulatory change requested by the overwhelming majority of city council," the statement read, "the mayor would expect the provincial government to take serious and immediate action to address the city's transit, transportation, childcare, and housing needs."
He may well be upset about the fact that the premier has deprived Toronto of an ongoing, annual revenue stream that the city would have actually controlled. Once again, the city has been forced to rely on the kindness of strangers — in this case, provincial largesse — to keep its financial plan on firm footing. But he surely can’t be upset about the financial windfall he just scored.
In fact, I think the only politician whose stock is trading lower today is former city councillor Doug Ford. During his last appearance on The Agenda, Ford was so irate at hearing the news of Tory’s road toll plan, he said it could prompt him to challenge Tory for the mayoralty in 2018. And it looks as if the most important plank in the Ford platform just disappeared.
Photo courtesy of Doug Kerr and licensed for commercial use under a Creative Commons licence. (See the uncropped version.)
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