In January, 2012, I asked in this space who was going to emerge as Toronto’s equivalent of Antonio Villaraigosa, L.A.’s gamechanging civic leader. During a dramatic 2008 referendum, the populist Democratic mayor of the City of Los Angeles fought to win support for Measure R, a 30-year/$40 billion sales tax hike across the entire L.A. County region, with funds earmarked for transit and road improvements.
With a month to go before Metrolinx releases its recommendations to cabinet for financing the $50 billion Big Move, it increasingly seems as if Premier Kathleen Wynne has taken up the challenge. A Toronto politician with deep roots in the city’s civic institutions, she appears to be much more emotionally attuned to the GTA’s ferocious congestion crisis than either her predecessor or the other party leaders.
Wynne has said repeatedly in recent weeks that the province needs to approve new fees, levies and perhaps even tolls to underwrite new subways, LRTs, BRTs and GO services. Yet despite support from business groups and 905 municipal leaders, recent polls show that many residents oppose new taxes. What’s more, she’s taking a huge risk in spending so much political capital on Toronto’s woes.
The Premier sat down with Spacing last week to discuss the issues:
Spacing: What do you say to people who live outside the 416, who probably don’t take transit, and likely won’t be seeing the benefits of The Big Move for years to come and will be asked to pay more for the revenue tools being proposed by Metrolinx.
Premier Wynne: There’s an artificial divide between the 905 and the 416. People travel in and out of different parts of the region for work, for recreation, to visit family. So we’re all affected by the congestion of the region. I actually don’t meet people who live in the 416 or the 905 who don’t believe this is an issue. The issue comes when we talk about how we’re going to pay for it.
Spacing: They will be expected, like all of us, to pay more. But they may not realize the benefits of transit for some time.
Wynne: Except the benefits of transit can be seen when they come into the city or travel across the region. It’s not that if I live in one part of the 905, I’m not going to see the benefits because there’s no transit project being done in that part of the 905. I move around the 905. I move around the 416. I may work downtown. There’s so much fluidity and movement that I really think people get that we all need this transit.
Spacing: What do you say to people who see how difficult it is to commute downtown by subway? Even if the Downtown Relief Line were begun tomorrow, it’s a decade and a half from fruition.
Wynne: You’re right — we are at capacity. Some people have said to me it’s reached crisis proportions. To me, that’s even more reason why we have to get going. We can’t wait any longer. I say all the time, the best time to plant a tree is forty years ago. The second best time is today
We have to understand that the projects being built right now can’t be the end of it. The Downtown Relief Line is a perfect example, because without the Downtown Relief Line, we can’t build a subway up Yonge Street because we can’t have more funneling into that Yonge line.
Spacing: In this debate about revenue tools, some politicians have said, ‘What’s wrong with using the income tax?’ Forty years ago, Bill Davis said, ‘We’re going to fund 75% of the capital cost of transit and 50% of the operating shortfall, and do it through a progressive tax base’? Why is that formula not relevant today?
Wynne: Over the years, the will to do that has dropped away. What I am sensing right now is that people want to see the connection between whatever money they’re paying to get transit built and the transit being built.
Spacing: The federal government recently introduced a new infrastructure plan that will last ten years. We have this ballpark figure of $50 billion [for The Big Move]. Can you explain how the federal contribution fits into this funding picture?
Wynne: I don’t even know what the federal contribution will be. When I look at the federal numbers and our need, they just don’t match up. When I was minister of transportation, I called for a dedicated stream of revenue for transit from the federal government. There hasn’t been uptake on that. You look at jurisdictions around the world. National governments take part in these very large infrastructure builds.
Spacing: Under Premier McGuinty, the Liberal government put in place elaborate policies to contain sprawl in the GTA. Are those mechanisms adequate? Do the assumptions of the Places to Grow Act need to be revisited?
Wynne: There are [legislative] reviews on the books for 2015. When we review those planning tools, we may have to look at how do we do this better.
Spacing: Premier McGuinty initially promised a significant tranche of funding for Transit City. That was pulled back….
Wynne: It was slowed down. The same amount is there. There was $8 billion-ish on the table. We slowed down the flow of that, but it’s still an $8.4 billion build and the vast majority of that plan is being built or will be built.
Spacing: Should GTA residents be dubious about whether you’re going to fulfill your promises? You slowed it down before. Will you slow it down again?
Wynne: Well, our commitment has been clear. We’ve invested over $16 billion in transit. As long as I’m the premier, this is going to be a priority.
Spacing: What is the learning about how L.A. mayor Antonio Villaraigosa sold his region on $40 billion in additional sales taxes for new transit?
Wynne: The take-away is that there is the possibility of municipal leaders seizing the moment and tapping into people’s desire to make the situation better. I think it’s an inspirational example. It’s important that we look for those examples around the world because I think sometimes we get blinkered about our own situation.
Spacing: You have expressions of support from municipal leaders in the 905 but the mayor of Toronto is quite expressly against revenue tools. Is that an impediment?
Wynne: Any individual mayor is one member of a local government. Council will ultimately decide on what their partnership is going to be with the provincial government on these issues. I will continue to have a good working relationship with the mayor, but council will make these decisions.
Spacing: We’ve seen problems with Ornge and ehealth Ontario. Metrolinx has developed a very expensive fare card. Why should GTA residents have confidence that Metrolinx is able to manage this enormous amount of money under the current governance structure? Should there not be politicians [on the Metrolinx board]?
Wynne: It’s a question I asked some of the civic leaders [at last week’s CivicAction forum]. We have to ask whether we have the right governance structure in place. I don’t believe this should be a partisan issue. It should be the same type of issue as repairing and rebuilding our roads. Infrastructure is necessary to make the economy thrive. In 2013, we should no more be having a debate about whether we should be building transit than in 1916 we should be having a debate about whether we should be building roads. There isn’t a specific plan to make a [governance] change at this point. But I do think we have to ask ourselves whether we have the right mix of political and apolitical [board members].
Spacing: Are you opening the door to politicians on the Metrolinx board?
Wynne: I’m not opening the door to anything in particular. I just think it’s a question that needs to be asked. At [the CivicAction event], someone said, `there needs to be some kind of political input into this decision.’ We need to continue to have that discussion.
Spacing: You’re creating a large stream of revenue for new capital construction. But how do GTA municipalities or Metrolinx deal with the operating deficit [associated with new services]? Where is that money going to come from?
Wynne: It’s a good question. Part of the answer is the gas tax, which is $320 million a year, of which Toronto gets around half. Again, there’s an ongoing and continuing discussion about operating. I don’t have an answer at this moment. But what I do know is that if we don’t land on a plan to build transit, we’ll never resolve the operating problem because we won’t have the transit that’s needed.
Spacing: Last question. In Toronto, we are having this strange debate about what to call the Downtown Relief Line. Do you want to throw in a nomination or two?
Wynne: No, I’m staying out of that [laughs].