In case you didn’t notice it, that little puff of smoke receding over the horizon this fall is Metrolinx’s $50 billion Big Move investment strategy — a hugely ambitious but fatally mismanaged plan whose fate has been quietly sealed in recent weeks by the same government that brought it to life.
I haven’t seen anyone link natural gas plant-gate and Metrolinx’s scheme to bring forward a range of hefty tax measures capable of raising $2 billion a year for regional transit expansion. But if you connect the dots, it seems increasingly clear the Liberals’ chances of seeing this plan to fruition are virtually non-existent.
To re-cap: In a frenzy of the most craven sort of politicized decision-making, the Liberals in the last election vowed to move two gas plants in the western GTA to less controversial locales at a cost, as we learned last week, of $230 million, and counting. And all this green to save the hides of five Liberal MPPs. In pure dollar terms, it’s a scandal that should, in theory, overshadow, the $100 million sponsorship debacle that destroyed their federal brethren in the mid-2000s.
The latest revelations gave rise to a spasm of outrage and contrition at Queen’s Park – a contempt allegation against energy minister Chris Bentley, the suspension of parliamentary business, and a self-flagellating op-ed by premier Dalton McGuinty. Don’t be deceived by the fact that the controversy abated: my guess is that Andrea Horvath and Tim Hudak are both keeping their powder dry in anticipation of a spring non-confidence vote on the next Liberal budget.
Ah yes, the spring budget. Given that the Liberals – riding high at 20%, according to a new Forum poll — have kept themselves busy of late pissing off vast segments of the civil service (read: voting public), and that this gas plant business renders ridiculous their Tory-inflected budget restraint efforts, I think it’s safe to predict the McGuinty era will grind to a halt sometime next spring.
The Metrolinx investment strategy is due out in June, 2013.
Do the math.
More urban seats will fall to the NDP while the Tories will soak up centre-right voters who want change, even if they aren’t in love with the smooth-cheeked son of Niagara. And don’t expect the Liberals to run on a platform pledging to impose transit taxes on the GTA, although they’ll surely be accused of the same.
My prediction: a Tory minority by next fall.
Perhaps the fact that the Liberals appear to be disintegrating explains why Metrolinx — conveniently embroiled in a highly distracting feud with the Toronto Transit Commission over the LRT outsourcing scheme — has grown conspicuously silent about the elusive investment strategy.
City officials yesterday released a once-over-lightly report outlining the tax ‘n toll measures required to raise $2 billion a year across the GTA and Hamilton. That document lands next week at executive committee. If it survives the yodeling and inanity from the mayor and his dwindling collection of allies, said report will go on to council, which will earnestly establish a public consultation process.
All good, but the big money measures require complex provincial legislation, which means the ball is still in the province’s court. And there’s no evidence that Metrolinx — which is said to be analyzing the viability of the various tax tools – wants to seed the clouds for a big discussion about the investment strategy.
And why should the agency bother? CEO Bruce McCuaig and chair Rob Prichard surely understand the fluid political context as well, if not better, than anyone else. Indeed, Prichard himself will remember what happened in 1996, when the NDP-appointed Anne Golden taskforce on the future of the GTA (of which he was a member) delivered its sweeping vision to the incoming Mike Harris government.
Thanks, Tory municipal affairs minister Al Leach told Golden, but no thanks.
As today’s political scenery shifts, the existential problem facing Metrolinx is that the Liberals failed to fortify their agency against…shifting political scenery. The board is comprised of Liberal appointees, with no independent source of political authority or legitimacy. The Big Move strategy itself is something of an artifact, the product of a brokered negotiation among a set of political actors at a particular moment, now long passed. And with the passage of time, it seems clear the agency is little more than an operating division of the ministry of transportation.
A veteran civil servant like Bruce McCuaig knows better than to hand a new government a costly strategy decked out with all manner of political trip wires.
In fact, even if the Liberals try to run on a platform that includes a pledge to bring in a bevy of new regional taxes to pay for this thing — which seems unlikely, given their other money management problems – a general election will render this maddeningly slow policy vetting process even slower.
So while transit advocates continue to debate the relative policy merits of regional sales taxes versus parking levies versus road tolls, the political reality is that the Metrolinx Big Move investment strategy appears to be a dead man walking.
For those who plan to participate in the transit funding consultations later this year and early next, the state of provincial politics leads to just one conclusion: if Toronto wants to expand transit, we’re going to have to pay for it ourselves.