Greater Toronto residents would overwhelmingly support the concept of a Los Angeles-style regional sales tax dedicated to transit and infrastructure, according to a new poll conducted by Environics exclusively for Spacing.
The poll indicates that 74% of the respondents said they “somewhat” (49%) or “strongly agreed” (25%) with an earmarked tax, while only 26% said they were opposed (“somewhat opposed” 17%, and “strongly opposed” 9%).
The dramatic results suggest a significant number of GTA voters would back taxes that promise to relieve worsening vehicle congestion that now costs the region $6 billion a year in lost productivity, according to the Toronto Board of Trade. “The findings show public is primed and ready for a meaningful discussion about the future of transit in the GTA,” says Darren Karasiuk, Environics’ vice-president of corporate and public affairs.
Using an online survey (see method description at bottom of this post) rather than a random phone sample, Environics asked 1,436 respondents the following question:
“In 2008, the Los Angeles regional government held a binding referendum that asked residents if they would support a 0.5%increase to the L.A. County sales tax for 30 years, with the proceeds – estimated at around $40 billion – dedicated to rapid transit and some road infrastructure. If this sort of tax – with the proceeds clearly dedicated to transit and local infrastructure – was introduced in your municipality, would you support or oppose it?”
For Metrolinx, the GTA regional transit agency, and the provincial Liberal government, the most attention-grabbing detail about the finding is that the level of public support runs high right across the GTA, not just in the City of Toronto, with its high level of transit usage.
In the 905, the overall pro-transit tax figure was 70%, ranging from a low of 67% of Halton respondents to a high of 75% in York Region, which has seen rising rates of transit ridership in Markham and Richmond Hill in recent years.
The result comes just two days after Richard Katz, a key player behind L.A. County’s 2008 transit financing deal, delivered a sold-out lecture at the Munk Centre to explain how City of Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a Democrat, won public support for a half-cent increase to the regional sales tax that will raise $40 billion over 30 years for twelve major transit and transportation projects, as well as operating funds. (The list includes LRTs, BRTs, a subway, and a highway expansion.)
Moderating Monday’s Munk event was Metrolinx chair Robert Prichard, whose organization has until June, 2013, to develop a plan to finance the agency’s $50 billion/25-year Big Move expansion strategy for the GTA and Hamilton.
The L.A. tax hike, known as Measure R, was approved by 67.3% of voters, just enough to exceed the mandatory super-majority required for all local tax increases. Ontario has no tradition of plebiscites for tax hikes and the populist concept remains highly controversial, although Mayor Rob Ford and some of his allies have called for City of Toronto referenda on decisions such as casinos.
While transit ridership in L.A. is low and used mainly by lower-income residents, the region’s horrendous traffic congestion created a kind of political tipping point that allowed Villaraigosa to assemble a broad-based coalition to pitch the sales tax hike. L.A. economic development officials estimated that the half-cent hike amounted to about $26 per person per year.
Villaraigosa, Katz said in his presentation, raised $3.5 million for the 2008 campaign to promote Measure R, using polling and research data to target key constituencies, including university students and seniors in the county’s affluent west side. Voters didn’t just approve the tax hike; Measure R laid out a detailed breakdown of the revenues, including estimated start and completion dates for the various projects. Shortly after the approval, Villaraigosa and his emissaries began pushing ahead a complicated finance deal designed to compress the construction period into a decade as a means of generating thousands of jobs for the region.
After the Munk event, Mike Del Grande, council’s out-going budget chair, said he generally supported the concept of a region-wide earmarked tax, as did York Region chair Bill Fisch, who said a sales tax is just one of several revenue tools.
What’s far less clear is who (or which group) would lead the charge for such a measure, and in what context. Ford, of course, has none of Villaraigosa’s leadership skills or vision, while the appointees on the Metrolinx board lack both public profile and political accountability. Nor it is obvious how a region-wide transit tax proposal would fit into the wider dynamic of a provincial election.
But the Environics poll does suggest that GTA residents — transit users and drivers alike — have become sufficiently fed up with the transportation status quo that they could be persuaded to dig into their wallets to finance a regional solution.
METHOD NOTE: Darren Karasiuk, of the Environics Research Group, says the online survey participants were chosen to provide a statistically relevant sample that is corrected to reflect regional demographics. The method, now used by many polling companies that have run into difficulty with traditional phone-based polls, is not to be confused with the non-scientific web polls that appear on many media websites.
photo by Wylie Poon