Now we know the debate over transit funding will not unfold along plain and simple lines. Events over the last week have certainly clarified that.
The context for these confusing deliberations is the public's prevailing mistrust of government spending, and skepticism about an endless transit discussion that has led to no tangible improvements. This is all deeply frustrating to insiders on the transit file who know dramatic action is needed.
But it is the situation nonetheless and the backdrop to city council's rejection May 9 of almost all new taxes to fund transit (except development charges and a sales tax). It also informs NDP leader Andrea Horwath's reiteration on Tuesday, May 14, that she would not endorse revenue tools, and specifically the plan for tolls on high-occupancy lanes mentioned in the provincial budget.
That dismay won't disappear overnight, despite strong arguments for the need for revenue tools and advertising campaigns like Feeling Congested or Let's Get Traffic Moving.
The problem is that while tolls, parking levies and fuel taxes, among other initiatives, would theoretically create incentives for more transit use, a viable, efficient transit service won't exist for years.
In some ways, pushing incentives without other visible transit options is putting the cart before the horse. In London, for instance, there was planning years ahead of new tolling so that massively increased bus service was available on day one of the tolls to provide an alternative to cars. There's has been no discussion of this kind of provision in Toronto.
People must be able to ride those future buses and trains before faith is restored in the agencies that deliver transit.
Kathleen Wynne, a former minister of transport, is enthusiastic about transit expansion. That's great, but her government assumed support from players that may not be forthcoming.
Yes, organizations from Civic Action to the Toronto Board of Trade to the Ontario Chamber of Commerce have come out in favour of new taxes, but as we're reminded, there's often a disconnect between civic leaders and the population as a whole.
Certainly, GTA municipal governments have been tepid on taxes at best, and last week Toronto council spent two days on the matter and refused to provide any political cover for the premier on the issue. Councillors chose to let the province take the heat for new taxes rather than risk their own electoral fortunes by backing new charges themselves.
One thing this whole mess demonstrates is that Toronto needs the governance tools to fulfill its own transit obligations. Council did what most people do when they have no direct responsibility in a matter: they pass the buck, in this case to Queen's Park.
It's like the situation in the development field, where final decision-making authority lies with the Ontario Municipal Board. Councillors often simply oppose a plan instead of working with developers, knowing the OMB will make the final call.
The Liberals also assumed their plan would get backing from the NDP, support they must get since the Conservatives are so hostile to revenue tools. But this week the NDP made the point again that it would not support bringing in new taxes while corporate tax loopholes worth $1.3 billion a year are slated to come into effect.
What the NDP realizes is that it's hard for most Ontarians, whose wages are stagnating, to understand why they should pay more for services they won't see for years.
The NDP has also asked that the proposal for tolls on high-occupancy vehicle lanes be removed from the budget and held over until the debate on new taxes. They deem it more appropriate to be considered at that point, and indeed it does seems a little out of place in the budget, as if it were someone's hobbyhorse, not part of a thought-out plan.
The biggest problem with tolling HOV lanes is that they are expensive - $500 million - and involve highway widening. The province has a poor track record on transit IT projects; look at the Presto system, which started at $250 million, is now at over $700 million and on its way to over $1 billion.
So the revenue tool debate is a sticky one. Metrolinx will issue its recommendations for funding on May 27, but that's just an advisory report from a provincial agency. Its recommendations will have to be officially adopted by the legislature.
With the provincial parliament set to begin a summer recess June 15, transit-related matters will probably not come before the legislature until it reconvenes in mid-September.
The premier could, of course, extend the current sitting and push hard for quick passage, but this seems unlikely. The only way to insure adoption of her signature initiative would be to do an about-face and adopt the NDP position on a fairer tax system. If she doesn't, she might well be facing an election on the issue
Adam Giambrone is chair of the nominations committee for the Ontario NDP