Recently we sat down with the premier to discuss gridlock—on our streets and in our politics—and how we can finally get serious about transit planning.
Kathleen Wynne takes the future of transit—and crucially, transit funding—seriously. It’s why she’s given two major speeches about it this month so far, and it’s why she invited several reporters to her office last week for a series of one-on-one interviews on the subject. More seriously, her commitment is measured in the political risk she is taking: actively campaigning for new taxes and fees is difficult for anyone in elected office, harder for a provincial leader critics already think is too much a Torontonian to understand northern or rural Ontario, and harder still for someone leading a minority government many think won’t last a year. Perhaps most of all, it is difficult for someone who inherited a government weighed down with a series of spending and mismanagement scandals that have left the electorate skeptical it can oversee large public projects effectively.
The premier is tackling this predicament by going on the offensive, putting a direct spotlight on an issue many before her have avoided. In our interview Wynne reiterates that she’ll let her government fall over the matter, if it comes to it. She has warned municipal governments that while she very much wants their support, these new revenue tools are coming, like it or not. She has made this her issue, in particular, making a point of pitching residents herself rather than leaving it to Transportation Minister Glen Murray. In summary, Wynne is staking a fair bit of her government’s viability on the proposition that the Toronto region is ready to support a politician who asks them to pay more money, because we know it’s the only way to get the transit we so badly need.
All of which makes it that much more frustrating that when we ask her how exactly she’ll be approaching the issue, Wynne is consistently vague.
Wynne, as we’ve been told often since her selection as the Ontario Liberals’ new leader, is a trained mediator, and it shows when we sit down to talk with her. She doesn’t take potshots at her opponents, and when we ask for her thoughts on how we got to this point—decades behind in our infrastructure and with many cities outpacing us in construction—she doesn’t mention Mike Harris once. (The Progressive Conservative premier famously filled in the tunnel that was meant to be the start of an Eglinton subway line in 1995; his government also cut Queen’s Park’s contribution to the TTC’s annual operating budget.)
What she does talk about is growing up in York Region, and how her generation took the bus only until they turned 16 and got their licences—after that, it just wasn’t a question that you’d drive. There was, she says, a great sense of space, and no sense at all that it might run out one day. She attributes our many years of inaction to that culture, one she says was very slow to shift, as well as to the usual political complexities of supporting projects whose benefits won’t be visible for many years.
But Wynne hedges often when we ask about specifics, about what she wants to do now to remedy matters: “I don’t want to pre-empt Metrolinx” is the sound bite of choice.
Metrolinx is the provincial agency responsible for transit planning in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area; it will unveil its proposed strategy for raising the $34 billion it estimates we need to complete a major round of transit projects, called The Big Move, on May 27, 2013. (The front-runners for those new revenue tools: a sales tax, a parking levy, and a fuel tax.)
It’s not just that she won’t issue her own list of preferred tools; Wynne won’t even articulate much by way of the principles she’ll rely on to guide this decision.
It’s crucial, she says, that we have a dedicated tool, but that doesn’t rule anything out—in theory we could even have a dedicated portion of the income tax set aside for transit projects. Is it important to her that whatever tools we come up with are progressive, that they are in some way scaled based on an individual’s capacity to pay? We get no straight answer. Is she prepared to go outside of Metrolinx’s list, if that’s what it takes to get one of the opposition parties to sign on? Maybe.
The premier hasn’t shied away from providing direction to government agencies before—most notably the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation, which is currently revising its formula for how municipalities and the province should share in new casino revenue, based on Wynne’s instructions. Her reluctance to pick two or three revenue tools right now is understandable; her refusal to articulate clearer decision-making principles in general doesn’t really wash.
To many though, the major breakthrough has already happened: we have a premier who is willing to stake her leadership on introducing new taxes and fees, whatever those end up being. And while there will be a tremendous amount of political wrangling to come, as the specifics of which revenue tools we end up with are worked out—between Wynne and NDP leader Andrea Horwath (PC leader Tim Hudak wants none of this), and between Wynne and all the GTHA mayors—it’s that initial step that may matter most. As one city councillor we spoke with recently put it: “Do I have preferences about which tools we pick? Sure. But that’s a fight I’m happy to lose. As long as we end up with something.”
Wynne hasn’t left herself much wiggle room, and she hasn’t left us with much, either: if the premier fails to deliver the transit funding she’s now advocating, it will make it much more difficult for the politicians (of any party) who come after her to tackle this anytime soon. Her commitment is laudable, and essential, but it isn’t enough—we need to know what framework and what values the premier will be bringing to bear as she weighs Metrolinx’s advice and enters into negotiations with the opposition. And we need to be given specific reason to believe that this time really will be different.