The Toronto City Summit Alliance held a roundtable event last Wednesday to discuss revenue tools that could reliably fund Metrolinx’s The Big Move regional transit plan. Among the 12 sources discussed in the TCSA report were the usual hot-topic revenue sources: road tolls, parking taxes, congestion charges, and regional fuel taxes. But it was Metrolinx CEO Rob Prichard’s opening remarks that posed one of the most interesting questions of the day. He asked: “Should any new tool that increases taxes, require a referendum?”
For many Canadians, the word “referendum” conjures up images of a very tense Provincial referendum in the fall of 1995 (as well as the spring of 1980), when Quebec’s sovereignty was being questioned. You may also remember a 2007 electoral reform referendum in Ontario. Referendums are common in the democratic process of many countries around the world, including the U.S., but have fallen out of common use in Canada. During the 2008 U.S. election, 32 referendums were held across the country asking voters to approve new revenue tools for funding transit.
There was, however, a time when referendums were commonly used as a tool in Toronto for gauging public support of new infrastructure investment. Now, with large-scale infrastructure projects like Transit City up in the air, and problems in securing funding for The Big Move plan, perhaps it’s worth opening the discussion of whether or not infrastructure referendums could ever make a return to Toronto’s municipal election ballots.
Two historical subway referendums have been held in Toronto. A century ago, when the first subway proposals started appearing, a 1911 municipal referendum asked voters:
Are you in favour of the City of Toronto applying to the legislature for power to construct and operate a municipal system of subway and surface street railway, subject to the approval of qualified ratepayers?
The public voted in favour, however the referendum was non-binding and the candidate who won the mayoralty (George Reginald Geary) opposed subway development due to the expense, resulting in the project being scrapped.
Fast-forward to 1946, when postwar Toronto was looking for infrastructure projects to put people to work. A referendum during the municipal election that year asked:
Are you in favour of the Toronto Transportation Commission proceeding with the proposed rapid transit system provided the Dominion government assumes one-fifth of the cost and provided that the cost to the ratepayers is limited to such amounts as the City Council may agree are necessary for the replacement and improvement of city services?
This time around, not only did Torontonians vote a whopping majority for the proposal, the project went ahead too. Eight years later, Canada’s first subway was opened.
Other examples of municipal referendums in Toronto include a 1930 vote to determine the fate of Vimy Circle, a roundabout that was to be located at the intersection of Richmond and University. With the stock market crash fresh in the public’s mind, voters decided against this project. Regent Park was built following a referendum 1947, in an attempt to improve the living conditions in the Cabbagetown area. More recently, a 1997 referendum was held in all six pre-amalgamation municipalities to vote on the “megacity” plan. The vote produced a majority against amalgamation, but the Harris government pushed forward regardless. This raises the question of the effectiveness of non-binding referendums, if governments maintain the ability to ignore the results.
Non-binding referendums can work. In Stockholm, a non-binding referendum was held in 2006 to decide if the city’s road congestion charge should be kept. The congestion charge was introduced in early 2006, run for a trial period of seven months, and then allowed to sit idle for three months, giving Stockholmers time to evaluate the charge. The ballot asked voters:
Environmental fees/congestion tax means that fees will be charged in road traffic with the purpose to reduce queuing and improve the environment. The income will be returned to the Stockholm region for investments in public transport and roads. Do you believe that congestion tax should be permanently introduced in Stockholm?
Voters narrowly approved the charge, despite electing a centre-right government who ran on a platform against congestion charging. In this instance, the referendum results were acknowledged, and the charges were kept.
Similar congestion-charge referendums have been held in Manchester and Edinburgh. In these referendums, voters decided against introducing the charges. A major difference in these cities was there was no trial period for the charge, and therefore drivers were never able to see the congestion reduction and environmental benefits.
Would infrastructure referendums work in Toronto? Let us know what you think. Please begin your comment with YES or NO, to make it easier for us to tabulate results, and suggest what referendum question would you like to see on the next municipal election ballot.