On road tolls, Toronto was dealt a bad hand and then played it badly

ANALYSIS: Toronto’s request to put tolls on the Gardiner Expressway and Don Valley Parkway was always going to be hard for Queen’s Park to say yes to, but city council made it even harder
By John Michael McGrath - Published on January 27, 2017
Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne and Toronto Mayor John Tory
Mayor John Tory may have gotten a cash infusion to replace most or all of his hoped-for tolls, but he’s not wrong when he says today’s money isn't enough to tackle Toronto’s infrastructure backlog. (Alex Guibord/Creative Commons)

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Well, it was a fun six weeks. That’s how long it took for a proposal to put tolls on the Gardiner Expressway and Don Valley Parkway in Toronto to go from a motion in support at city council to being publicly rejected by the government of Ontario. (The province will be providing all municipalities with additional proceeds from the gas tax, instead.) Hey, at least Toronto’s leaders provided some fodder for acrimonious debates across the Christmas dinner table?

Advocates for road pricing (myself included) are understandably disappointed — not so much because of the shift in revenue sources, but because this will likely shut down any serious discussion of using road tolls as a measure to control congestion. People who aren’t fans of road pricing but took the Liberals seriously when they spoke of treating Toronto as a “mature level of government” are also miffed.

But advocates for this specific proposal need to acknowledge that it was only ever going to be a hard request for Queen’s Park to say yes to, and Toronto politicians didn’t do themselves any favours in how they went about it.

For starters, of course Queen’s Park is going to have the final say on matter like this. Toronto’s privileged position at the core of the province’s economy is both a blessing for the city and an invitation to all kinds of shenanigans. City council’s second favourite pastime (after interminable transit debates) is finding ways to raise money from anyone other than the people who already own homes there. During this road tolls debate, and every time road tolls have been seriously considered in the last decade, councillors have proposed tolling only non-Toronto motorists. This is dressed up in elegant language about how Torontonians already pay property taxes while 905 motorists don’t, but no amount of elegance can hide the crass rent-seeking city council is fond of.

In Toronto’s defence, the request they actually sent to Queen’s Park did not include anything quite so grubby. However, some of the public statements from both Mayor John Tory and his allied councillors still made it harder for Premier Kathleen Wynne to go along with it.

Toronto’s recent history of increasing property taxes by less than the rate of inflation is an inescapable part of the context. One Liberal who spoke with TVO.org on condition of anonymity referred to the “barely concealed glee” of city councillors who’d found a way to slap a tax on the suburbs and keep Toronto’s property taxes low. (The city estimated that roughly half the income from tolling the Gardiner would come from out-of-towners.)

But that’s not to say Queen’s Park would have said yes to tolls if council had been less austere in its recent budgets, either.


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While the benefits of tolling (that is, the money) would flow exclusively to Toronto, there wasn’t even a solid majority backing tolls in the city itself, unless polling questions explicitly asked about “non-residents” paying tolls (see above, re: shenanigans). The pro-road pricing forces didn’t even have a consensus among the people who would have most obviously benefited.

And that, of course, is the nut of the problem. Toronto is the geographic core of the region but demographically — and electorally — the centre of gravity has long since moved to the suburbs. Toronto will have 25 seats at stake in the 2018 election, but there will be 33 in contention in the ring around the city. And the Liberals have more reason to worry about their seats in the 905 than those in the 416, which is their last bastion of solid political support.

So while there’s a lot of evidence that road pricing is good policy, and the Liberal government actually supports tolls in other places (notably the 407 highway and high-occupancy toll lanes), Toronto was trying to sell them with questionable motives and no strong ground swell of public support — while asking the provincial government to put a noose around its own neck in the places it needs to be competitive in the next election.

And while the Liberals’ own motivations are hardly pure, all of this would still be true were Kathleen Wynne 10 points ahead in opinion polls instead of 20 points behind. This is a structural feature of Ontario politics and the way seats in the legislature are allocated, not the temporary result of one party’s political interests.

The good news in all this is that not just Toronto but cities around Ontario will still benefit from today’s announcement: the government is doubling the share of gas taxes remitted to municipalities, from two cents a litre to four cents, starting in 2021. (No, the rate itself is not going up. Yes, that date is conveniently after the next provincial election. And yes, Toronto’s road-toll proposal suffered from the same deficiency.)

If the money actually materializes, Toronto will get $170 million based on current gas tax revenue, and another nearly 90-odd cities around the province would share roughly that much money between them, all dedicated to transit projects. That dollar figure happens to be what Toronto’s staff estimated a $2 road toll would bring in, though some calculations thrown around by the mayor and council had more optimistically hoped for $200 million to $300 million ($272 million if tolls mirrored the rates set for the 407, for example.)

What remains true is that the figures being thrown around today still leave Toronto and every other municipality in Ontario facing enormous funding pressures. Tory might have gotten a cash infusion to replace most or all of his hoped-for tolls, but he’s not wrong when he says today’s money isn't enough to tackle Toronto’s infrastructure backlog, or that the city still needs more money from the province to deal with other pressing needs the province used to fund, like housing.

The premier admitted as much last summer, telling the Association of Municipalities of Ontario the province was willing to talk about new forms of revenue if cities could reach a consensus on what new tax(es) they were willing to defend to voters, and not just leave the province holding the political bag. Road tolls, it turns out, are not going to be part of that solution. Toronto, the other cities of Ontario, and the provincial government still need to figure out what will.

Photo courtesy of Alex Guibord and licensed for commercial use under a Creative Commons licence. (See the uncropped version)

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