TORONTO — Business leaders must help shore up support for a contentious provincial plan to raise billions of dollars for public transit in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton area, Premier Kathleen Wynne said Monday.
People want to reduce congestion and get moving again, she said in a speech to the Toronto Region Board of Trade. But she needs help to “develop real momentum” for new investment in transit.
Measures like taxes or tolls to pay for transit are politically unpopular, which has stopped other governments from making those hard decisions, she acknowledged.
“Parties do polling, they don’t see easy answers. They don’t see easy wins,” she said.
“But you and I know that improving infrastructure … it’s not about scoring political points. This is not a partisan issue. It’s about ensuring Ontario’s success.”
Better public transit will benefit everyone by spurring economic growth and tourism, while reducing the effects of congestion on the environment, she said.
The board of trade and Metrolinx, the provincial transit authority, have suggested several ways to raise the $2 billion a year they say is needed to fund public transit projects in the region.
They include highway tolls, a hike in the sales tax and a half-cent-a-litre tax on gasoline — ideas Toronto Mayor Rob Ford found so distasteful last week that he pretended to vomit.
“Contrary to what some will have you believe, there is no war on cars, no war on transit, no war on cyclists,” Wynne said. “We’re all fighting for a better way forward and we need to do that together.”
It may not be popular, but it has been done before, she said. Los Angeles brought in a 30-year regional sales tax to fund transit, and the Swedish capital of Stockholm imposed congestion tolls.
“I think we all have to focus on uniting people in a sense of optimism around infrastructure investment,” Wynne told the business audience.
“Because really, this is not a dark tale of taxes and tolls … It’s a story about laying the groundwork for our own success, and the success of our children and our grandchildren.”
But any new “tool” can’t disproportionately impact one type of commute, she added. And she doesn’t want anyone to think that the Greater Toronto and Hamilton area is getting unfair attention or funding.
For the last 20 years, transit investment has lagged behind funding for roads and bridges, which has reached billions of dollars over the past nine years, she said.
There’s no arguing that transit improvements must be made, said Progressive Conservative Frank Klees. But new taxes and tolls aren’t the way to do it.
The governing Liberals should trim the fat in their own budget before asking the public for more money, he said. Wynne should also consider private sector involvement in major transit projects.
“She’s essentially saying to the business community, ‘Help me convince the people out there that they should be paying more,’ ” Klees said.
“She knows full well that the average Ontarian is going to point the finger back at her and her government and say, ‘Clean up your own house, find the waste that you’ve got there and redirect them and use them for these priority projects.’ ”
But those who say the money can be found in the province’s existing $125-billion budget are wrong, Wynne said.
The government has already tightened spending to help eliminate a $12-billion deficit, she said. Public service delivery is very efficient compared to other provinces, she said.
“We need to find dedicated revenue for these projects because the money will not and cannot be found elsewhere,” Wynne said.
The former transportation minister wouldn’t rule out new taxes or levies to pay for transit but said she’ll wait for Metrolinx’s final report in June.
“This is a contentious issue and it needs some time for people to consider it,” she said.
There needs to be broader consensus in Ontario over transit funding, Wynne added. It’s not enough to have consensus within her government or even among all three parties in the legislature.
“Unfortunately, sometimes there needs to be a real push on political leaders to take a stand when we’re dealing with a contentious issue like this,” she said.
“I feel very strongly about this issue. I’m committed to it and I’m going to need all the people in the room today at the Toronto Region Board of Trade, but far beyond that, to take a stand on this.”
The Canadian Press