Yesterday morning, Toronto Region Board of Trade (BoT) president Carol Wilding gave every politician in southern Ontario a veritable prairie of leeway by coming out boldly, and with no evidence of prevarication, in favour of four very specific revenue tools — taxes!! — to underwrite a generation of transit expansion in the GTA.
The Board’s well-researched recommendations targeted all the most obdurate constituencies: mall owners (parking levy), drivers (gas tax and high occupancy vehicle toll lanes), and, well, everyone (regional sales tax). Speaking on behalf of the GTA’s most engaged business group, Wilding in effect was saying to all three political parties, but especially those on the right, “We’ve got your back.”
And for that courageous gesture, the Board deserves a lot of praise.
As it happened, there was one, and only one, active politician present at the BoT presser: Trinity-Spadina MP Olivia Chow, the NDP’s transportation critic and, by her own admission, a potential mayoral candidate in a 2014 race against an incumbent who believes subways can be financed with Monopoly money.
Chow, to her credit, has been flogging a no-hope national transit strategy private member’s bill for over a year. So one would think that supporting the Board’s proposals should be a gimme for her.
Well, think again.
What did she think of the specific proposals? “It’s not up to a federal MP to say what needs to be done,” Chow demurred during a scrum after the speech.
What would she say to Premier Kathleen Wynne? I asked. “It’s not up to me to tell the Premier. She’ll make her own decision.”
What does she think of a regional sales tax? “It’s really not up to a federal MP to comment on what the provincial government should or shouldn’t do.”
I’m not going to pretend that Chow turned up merely to show the flag and chat up Thursday’s federala budget, with its anticipated announcement of a new federal infrastructure program, rumoured to be worth $30 billion. She is meticulously building a case for support, so it was deeply disappointing to see her refuse to take up the political backing that Wilding has generously provided.
Wilding, early on in her remarks, noted trenchantly that the city is not only afflicted by actual gridlock, but also by a gridlock of studies and reports and calls to action that have piled up for literally generations. By 2031, she said, the aggregate cost to the regional in lost productivity will be $15 billion — a horrendous toll. Her point, of course, was that the time has come for our politicians to go out and sell what must seem, to many voters, to be an extremely costly leap of faith.
Yet I’m not sure Chow was listening. What we need now are politicians who are willing put themselves out there because it’s the necessary thing to do.
Wynne, during her leadership bid, certainly had the guts to take a bold stance, running explicitly on the need to bring in new revenue tools to underwrite The Big Move. TTC chair Karen Stintz, who also harbours mayoral ambitions, has been saying for months — and said again yesterday — that the City of Toronto needs to levy its own taxes to build transit.
So it’s not clear to me why Chow was suddenly consumed by a need for intergovernmental decorum. The Harper Tories have never been shy about lecturing the provincial Liberals about their financial management skills. Municipal politicians gripe ceaselessly about the other orders of government. And the MPPs at Queen’s Park routinely rain criticism down on their municipal counterparts.
By speaking out, Chow would be creating space for other politicians, e.g., Andrea Horwath, to align themselves behind the Board’s recommendations and, ultimately, those of Metrolinx, which are due in late May. But by declining to speak out, Chow revealed a troubling lack of leadership and a sense of highly calculated caution at a time when outspoken leadership was never more necessary.
But let’s be honest: we’ve seen this show before. Indeed, on that very point, the release of veteran transit planer Ed Levy’s ebook, “Rapid Transit in Toronto: A Century of Plans, Progress, Politics and Paralysis,” couldn’t possibly be more timely. Levy offers a heart-breaking account of wave after wave of transformative transit visions that were drawn up by forward-looking planners, only to be scuttled by politicians who couldn’t see beyond the next election.
Maybe The Big Move will merely become the next chapter in Levy’s sad story of opportunities missed, squandered or squelched.
If this latest fix is to avoid the fate of its predecessors, Wynne will need a broad coalition of political supporters who have the courage of their convictions and are prepared to talk honestly about specific policies, about the irritation voters will feel at paying additional taxes, and about the light at the other end of the tunnel.
After yesterday’s performance, all I can say is that I hope Olivia Chow takes the time to read Ed Levy’s book — and fully absorb his grave warnings — before she throws her hat into the mayoral ring.
photo by Wylie Poon