Spacing and Innovative Research transit poll: Skepticism on revenue tools

This is the first of two columns by John Lorinc today as Metrolinx announces the revenue tool recommendations for The Big Move. John filed an update after the 11am release.

With Metrolinx releasing its long-awaited investment strategy today, an exclusive Spacing poll shows that scarcely more than a quarter of GTHA residents are prepared to back a regional sales tax hike to raise funds to pay for a generation’s worth of transit and congestion-busting investments across the region.

Furthermore, only 17% of all respondents agreed that individual taxpayers should foot the bill for Metrolinx’s next wave of Big Move projects. Indeed, almost four in ten felt that transit users should pick up the tab. Interestingly, 44% felt the cost should be borne by businesses and developers, while 60% of the respondents said that the private sector should be more involved in financing these projects.

As for the revenue tools themselves, the poll — conducted earlier this month by Innovative Research Group* — revealed that residents were most likely to favour four sorts of taxes — development charges, parking space levies, HOT lanes, and highway tolls — over all the other mechanisms floated by the regional agency earlier this spring. Those four, some of which have turned up as top choices in other recent polls, are the only ones on Metrolinx’s short-list to merit “net positive support,” meaning the total number of respondents in favour exceeds those opposed.

Problem is, Metrolinx officials have said in recent weeks that highway tolls won’t be considered until a lot more transit is up and running. Moreover, two of the tools that passed muster with the public in the Spacing/Innovative poll — development charges and HOT lanes — aren’t big money-makers.

The AECOM study of the revenue tools released in March estimated the net revenue from HOT lanes is probably no more than $100 million annually. Development charges can bring in a further $50 million. As for the parking space levy, it could raise over $400 million per year, but AECOM cautions that it would be like a property tax and would therefore have to be adopted by individual municipalities, which adds an element of uncertainty and plenty of delay.

In sum, while 55% of GTHA drivers reports that their commute is getting worse and three in four residents feel more transit is the way to change the channel on congestion, the lukewarm support for acceptable but low-impact revenue tools underscores the magnitude of the challenge Premier Kathleen Wynne’s minority government faces as it gears up to find ways to raise about $2 billion a year.

What makes her agenda even more daunting is that the public’s awareness of Metrolinx’s grand plan, though certainly greater than it was a year or two ago, remains modest, especially outside the 416 (45% of all residents have heard of The Big Move, with that figure rising to 57% inside the 416).

Lastly, the poll findings indicate that City of Toronto residents are substantially more troubled by the state of transit, congestion and road maintenance than those in the rest of the region. That skew poses another set of political dilemmas, because the proposed taxes and levies will be imposed right across the GTHA, not just in the aggrieved and gridlocked 416.

Metrolinx has been careful to create a blueprint that is intended to bring new transit investment to the entire region – subways are slated for some areas, while others will see BRTs, LRTs and enhanced GO service. Yet even with these new projects, the reality is that 905 transit usage will remain relatively low for decades to come because of long established low-density development patterns.

In other words, Metrolinx and the provincial government need to persuade residents right across the GTHA that the overall transportation network benefits of all these investments in new transit projects will be felt broadly, as opposed to just within the corridors where these new lines will run.

For a government in a hurry, they have an awful lot of educating to do before they move to bring forward legislation imposing this new fiscal reality on the GTHA.

Other recent public opinion research on Metrolinx’s investment strategy:

  •  Ipsos Reid poll for City of Toronto —  (1,548 respondents, March 25-April 2):
    • The most commonly cited revenue tools: development charges (68%), parking levy (58%), HOT lanes (49%), congestion charge (46%), payroll tax (41%). Of the other taxes and levies, highway tolls received 38%, and sales tax, 26%.
    • Over eight in ten respondents (85%) agreed or strongly agreed that new funding is required and an overwhelming number back dedicated revenues.
  • Forum poll for The Toronto Star (995 respondents, March 28-April 3):
    • Just one in three respondents supported Metrolinx’s short-list of 11 proposed revenue tools, released in late March.
    • Parking levy, HOT lanes and development charges were supported by 47%, 43% and 42% respectively, none of the options floated by Metrolinx garnered more than 50% approval.
  • Toronto Region Board of Trade
    • In mid-March the TBOT recommended that Metrolinx consider a regional sales tax, a regional fuel tax, and parking levy and HOT lanes as “balanced, fair and economically responsible.” The organization said it surveyed its members but didn’t release the results.
  • Spacing/Environics online poll
    Released in April, 2012, found 74% of GTHA residents (1,436 respondents) agreed or strongly agreed with a dedicated sales tax modeled on Los Angeles County’s .5% increase approved in 2008.
  • Environics poll commissioned for Metrolinx (2,500 respondent, September, 2011) and obtained by The Globe and Mail through an access to information request:
    • 70% agreed that government has enough revenue to improve road and transit and thus doesn’t need to impose additional taxes

 photo by Danielle Scott

* The online survey was conducted by Innovative Research Group with in partnership Spacing Magazine. Innovative Research Group interviewed 1,117 Canadian adults residing in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area between May 9th  and 15th, 2013. The online sample was weighted down to 1,072 by age, gender and region using 2011 Statistics Canada Census data to reflect the actual demographic composition of the GTHA population. Since the online survey was not a random, probability based sample, a margin of error could not be calculated. The Marketing Research and Intelligence Association prohibits statements about margins of sampling error or population estimates with regard to most online panels.  The margin of error for a probability-based random sample of 1,117 using a probability sample is ± 2.9 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.


  1. Unfortunately, the heavy transit improvements with no new taxes rhetoric coming out of various corridors in downtown Toronto, and not just City Hall, is still ringing in the ears of the general public. Couple that with the Liberals’ own trail of waste in recent years and this is going to be a difficult road for the Premier to tread.
    But the Liberals are the only ones even willing (or daring) to tackle the major transportation problem facing our region. And it has to be addressed. Based on that alone, they have my support, for what it’s worth (which is very little, let’s be honest). And my well wishes.

  2. How can we ever have a discussion about anything that only half the people have even heard of? I hope that means the other half just doesn’t know the title, but are aware there’s a nebulously large plan for the area, but I’m not sure even that’s right.

    As for tools, I assume people like dev. charges and parking levies ’cause they’re indirect, followed by optional (I can choose to avoid HOT lanes), and just willfully blind (payroll; if you must, take it off the top so I don’t know that money ever existed).

    It’s quite clear the ones where the average Torontonian only pay indirectly do not add up to 2 billion a year. I dislike road tolls a great deal, just structurally I think pay per click taxation is moronic. I think a regional gas tax is the only option I’d endorse that could actually cover the bulk of the cost. I’m fine with most of the tools, but there’s gonna have to be an unpalatable main tool to get close to 2b. Gas tax would hurt – gas already feels ridiculously priced – but it’s the only one that taxes in the right place (no general sales tax!) and might have the added benefit of making both halves of Toronto pay attention to what Metrolinx actually does with the money, ’cause they’ll be pissed. Of course it’s also one of the least-liked options, so there’s almost no chance it comes about.

  3. Of interest is the preferred taxes/fees are the ones that
    are avoidable or fall on someone else.

  4. “… 60% of the respondents said that the private sector should be more involved in financing these projects.”

    Did this question explain that private project finance is basically a procurement mechanism only, or an actual source of funding? There seems to be a continuing misconception pushed by Ford and co. that there are private sector entities just itching to dump (tens of) billions of dollars into public infrastructure with absolutely to expectation of making that money back. P3/AFP has its benefits (and drawbacks) in terms of reducing costs and aligning interests, but they are not “free money”.

    The closest you’ll really get to private finance is capturing some of the value of the land uplift that the project generates – the Hong Kong model. But this is basically what the development fees sort-of does, and its clearly not even close to large enough…

  5. The revenue tools, where the charge lies, can also affect transit behaviour. A sales tax, like a property tax, is a broad-based source of revenue and could be seen to reflect an overall general benefit to residents of the city.

    Expressway tolls and parking levies, in raising the cost of driving, would lead people to change their travel behaviour over time, for instance, living closer to work, shopping neared to home, or choosing transit or active transport over driving.

    While some respondents felt that transit users should pay the cost of improved service (higher fares), hopefully people would see by the same logic that the roadways (motor vehicles infrastructure) should be paid for by road users.

  6. I don’t see what the big deal is about a 1% HST increase. It’s obvious there has to be a tool that will do the heavy lifting as far as revenues go, as most of the others ie HOTs, gas tax, development charges etc. aren’t going to get us anywhere near $2b annually. We used to pay 15% before (GST+PST). This would still only make it 14% and, frankly, I’d rather pay the tax and see it used properly – that is a must – than see the extra odd nickel in my wallet. Just my humble opinion.

  7. I prefer gas tax or vehicle registration or anything targeting cars rather than just flat sales tax (probably doesn’t need to be mentioned, but I do own and commute with my own car). If you want to do it as provincial income tax, targeting car owners, that’s fine with me too, but gas tax gets at it directly.

    If I had my druthers there wouldn’t be HST either, it’d be rolled into income tax. If you’re going to tax at the point of sale, I’d like it to have a specific mandate (healthcare for smokes and booze, transit infrastructure for gas, public art for billboards, etc…) That’s more than a little OT for this though.

    That being said, if they do a point or two on top of HST with the express purpose of funding GTA transit, I won’t go crazy or anything, but it’s a regressive and unfair approach IMO. I just want them to start investing the serious dollars that it’s going to take to make real and dramatic transit infrastructure improvement.

    I also sympathize with the average fiscal conservative who just doesn’t want more taxation. It’s not like too many people have a reason to feel they’re getting a quality return on the income, sales, and property tax they’re already spending (probably not the best word) and there isn’t any kind of concrete plan for how the new money would be spent. Government is so opaque to the public. Think about the transit city flip-flop. Ford did something blatantly improper procedurally when he held a single meeting and subsequently declared transit city dead and it took council more than a year to point that out. Granted, that’s likely tactical more than blindness on their part, but the general public didn’t say squat, which tells you how much we understand about the day-to-day machinations of our elected overlords.

    BTW, wasn’t Transit City funded, then half-funded by the Libs during Miller’s reign? Wasn’t that billions and billions of dollars? Where’d that money go? Sorry if this part has been discussed already, I’m just as guilty as many of tuning out the noise from time to time.

  8. We are getting new transit with no new taxes … $16 billion worth of First Wave projects are already taking place, with visible construction for all but three (the Sheppard East LRT line, Finch West LRT line and SRT replacement) of those projects. Not only that, but the first segment of the Mississauga BRT/transitway (Hurontario to Dixie, just south of 403 and north of Eastgate Parkway) and the VIVA rapidway (404 to Bayview along Highway 7) will open up this year.

    Depending on how you choose to look at it, included within that $16 billion is 1 or 2 subway lines (Spadina line extension up to Vaughan and the Eglinton Crosstown). If you don’t agree that Eglinton Crosstown is a subway, just consider that it will be mostly underground and a 3car train will carry more people than the current Sheppard subway trains.

    The $2bn / year to be collected by the province is to pay for the $34 billion worth of Next Wave projects, which will include the Yonge subway extension to Highway 7 and (hopefully) the first segment of the Don Mills Line / Don River Line / Downtown Relief Line.

    Cheers, Moaz

  9. Jacob said: “BTW, wasn’t Transit City funded, then half-funded by the Libs during Miller’s reign? Wasn’t that billions and billions of dollars? Where’d that money go?”

    Basically that money was earmarked by the provincial government based on future revenues from tax collection and a juggling of future spending priorities. Once the recession happened, the money ‘disappeared’ because it was never generated (by economic activity) and never collected (in the form of taxes). The government also had a new set of priorities (bailout for GM and local automakers) so the Transit City projects were cut back or delayed.

    If not for the 3 hits (the recession, disagreement on the Sheppard East LRT extension, and Rob Ford’s election and subsequent declaration) … the first parts of Transit City would have started in 2011 and be well into construction now.

    Cheers, Moaz

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