‘Ottawa’ Reevely: Toronto’s a Mess, so Ottawa is Getting $35 Million in Provincial Money
Ottawa is getting $35 million more a year for transit from the provincial government because Toronto’s city council is dysfunctional.
Politics is weird. Let’s follow the bouncing chequebook all the way from Toronto City Hall to a chilly platform at Hurdman station Friday morning, where a gaggle of freezing politicians, variously promised the money would be spent on transit and that it wouldn’t be.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Toronto’s huge council is beset by regional rivalries and magical thinking about its own finances, both of which got a lot worse during the Rob Ford years. They’ve built up a wish list of subway lines and major park projects based on what different parts of the city feel like they deserve, at the same time as a bunch of very expensive older things are reaching the point of needing major repairs. The elevated Gardiner Expressway is a big example: it’s in such bad shape that pieces have fallen off the city-owned highway. Toronto estimates it needs $3.6 billion of work but refuses to countenance tearing it down.
Toronto council voted last fall to charge tolls to use its highways, to raise some of the money. It was a rare moment of cohesion, in which councillors from all over agreed to gang up on suburbanites who use the road. But the Gardiner Expressway and the Don Valley Parkway can’t be tolled without the province’s permission, much like Highway 174 here, and these tolls would disproportionately ding drivers from the 905 belt of suburbs around Toronto.
Premier Kathleen Wynne, having campaigned in 2014 on a promise to have an “adult conversation” about things like road tolls to pay for important projects, is in enough trouble as it is without alienating voters from Mississauga to Markham. Wynne has publicly declared her worry about the cost of living and all the ways governments, particularly hers, have nickel-and-dimed Ontarians. So she’s telling Toronto no, it can’t charge tolls.
Here’s the official explanation: “Ontario recognizes that commuters need reliable transit options before revenue-generating measures such as road tolls are implemented.”
But Wynne can’t afford to infuriate Torontonians, including pro-toll Mayor John Tory, who is popular. And she can’t afford to look like she’s favouring Toronto. And it’s built into the Ontario Liberal Party’s DNA that Job One is winning elections. Say whatever you have to say, do whatever you have to do, spend whatever you have to spend, but win.
So Wynne’s government is doubling the amount of money it gives cities out of provincial gas-tax revenues, from two cents a litre to four cents. For Toronto, that means about $160 million, which is roughly what Toronto calculated it would make each year from a $2-a-trip highway toll. It’s money that has to be spent on transit, technically, but money freed up from transit can be spent on other things.
Progressive Conservative leader Patrick Brown’s best response was to complain that killing the toll idea took Wynne too long: “The fact that it took this long for the Kathleen Wynne Liberals to come to their senses shows how out of touch they have become,” he said.
New Democrat leader Andrea Horwath complained the Liberals aren’t handing over enough money.
(Both are publicly against tolls, though, so they didn’t have much to work with.)
For Ottawa, the increase means about $35 million more provincial money a year. The catch: It doesn’t begin even with partial payments until 2019 and goes up a few million a year until reaching the maximum in 2021. This is partly because the province doesn’t have the money yet but expects to after balancing its budget in the next fiscal year. It’s also partly so the payments will be hostage to the results of the next election.
While Wynne was announcing the overall plan on a transit platform in Richmond Hill, Ottawa politicians were doing their local version at Hurdman, freezing their ears off on the wind-whipped platform (politicians don’t wear tuques).
The thing came together so fast that not all the local Liberals made it. Coun. Stephen Blais had a speech ready to thank the province for its customary annual gas-tax handover and had to adapt, not even knowing for sure what they were all there to announce. Infrastructure minister and Ottawa West-Nepean MPP Bob Chiarelli read from handwritten notes instead of his usual crisply printed ones.
“There’s a much bigger need and a bigger demand for transit,” Chiarelli explained. “What we’re basically saying, with all the transit that’s on plan in municipalities across the province, they’ve got to make arrangements to finance that … the demand is so great we’ve got to double what we’ve been giving them.”
What will Ottawa use the money for? A light-rail branch to Kanata? Buying more buses for rush-hour crushes? No.
“This is very good news because it will allow us to ensure that we don’t have to debenture our share of the money on a go-forward basis,” Mayor Jim Watson said. That is, the city will borrow somewhat less money for its existing light-rail plans.
Borrowing less is good, of course. But Chiarelli said the money is to do more transit things because so many transit things need doing and Watson immediately said into the same microphone that Ottawa will not do more transit things with it.
Whatever. Ottawa’s plans are not the point. The point is Toronto.
Back at City Hall, after a chartered OC Transpo bus returned the politicians and the journalists who covered them, Chiarelli ordered eggs in the cafeteria and watched John Tory live on television behind the counter.
Tory thanked the provincial government for Toronto’s share of the money. Then he continued.
“It’s time that we stop being treated, and I stop being treated, as a little boy going up to Queen’s Park in short pants,” he complained. We had a solution to a problem and you’re keeping us from using it.
The 905-belt mayors, though, were pretty pleased. The Liberals will probably call it a good day.