Toronto loses when Wynne, Tory play politics with road tolls

Facing a growing transit deficit and a dearth of funding in Ontario’s biggest city, Toronto’s city council and the Ontario provincial government combined to deliver a solution that should satisfy nobody. Toronto mayor John Tory, who spoke out against road tolls in his days as an aspiring public servant, saw tolling two stretches of highway under city management as a way to raise some desperately needed transit funds, but Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne stepped in to override Toronto and instead offer another morsel of annual funding from the gas tax to all municipalities in the province.

It’s the kind of back-and-forth undercutting Ontario citizens have come to expect from our various levels of government. Toronto is billions behind in infrastructure improvements alone, thanks in no small part to a mayor who spent plenty of time bragging about saving billions without considering the consequences of his cutbacks, and a council that is gutless when it comes to implementing more-practical but less-popular revenue tools like taxes. The province is arguably worse off, saddled with a Liberal government that is still in power due to the incompetence of its opposition despite handling the energy file so poorly that provincial hydro bills are indistinguishable from mob-level extortion.

I don’t think Tory ever really wanted road tolls, just like I don’t believe Wynne’s concern about the finances of Ontario families. Tory’s boardroom background helped him see tolls as a way to leverage the province into giving Toronto more money, because the Liberal government is too afraid of losing votes in the Toronto suburbs next year. Sure enough, Liberal MPPs in ridings surrounding Toronto made the most noise about the potential tolls, forcing Wynne to pull the plug and spin it as a cost-of-living issue. If Wynne truly cared about that, reining in hydro bills (and giving back some of that $37 billion in overcharges) would go a lot further than quashing a small fee people would only have to pay on the Gardiner or the DVP. While many commuters use those roads on a daily basis, everyone uses electricity, and the personal financial benefits would be much more universal.

This isn’t to say that tolls and other user fees are the right way for Toronto to overcome its many financial shortfalls. Toronto is an obscenely wealthy city, in that it is home to the headquarters of many obscenely wealthy Canadian businesses and contains some of the country’s most luxurious neighbourhoods, from Forest Hill and Rosedale to the Bridle Path. Rather than tapping into that wealth, usage fees like road tolls will disproportionately affect people who live in less-affluent neighbourhoods further from downtown. And tolls don’t do much to incentivise alternative forms of transit, especially in corners of the suburbs where non-car transportation isn’t an option.

If Tory’s original toll plan seemed like a half-baked way to stir up some headlines and force the province to act, that’s because it was. If the response from Wynne’s Liberals comes off as a naked and impractical vote grab, that’s because it is. Other mayors in the province are laughing because of the extra money they will receive as a result of Tory and Wynne’s political maneuvering. Tory will likely cruise to reelection on the strength of his pragmatism being mistaken for genius following the disastrous Ford years, while Wynne and the Liberals have successfully dodged an electoral bullet the Conservatives would have probably misfired anyway in 2018.

And the only people who end up losing in all this are the citizens of Toronto. As usual.