TAKING TOLL OF A BAD IDEA
By Jonah Schein
Please excuse the long rant. A hellish commute combined with other waiting around has put me in a bad and ranting kind of mood.
Let me begin by saying that I understand that people in Toronto feel quite desperate for new revenue for our city — particularly for public transit. I feel that pain. Today it took me over two hours to get to work by TTC (Toronto's public transit system), a commute that I can do in less than 25 minutes by bike.
The commute can be absolutely maddening and on days like today, it is easy to see what economists mean when they say gridlock costs our city billions each year in lost productivity.
There has been a lot of debate about transit in recent years but there have not been enough smart decisions or action taken to address the mobility needs of the city. So it's easy to see why some people who live in a city that clearly has a mobility problem, and a revenue problem, are feeling desperate enough to buy into conservative mayor John Tory's road toll proposal.
Personally, I don't like road tolls for the same reason I don't like to see increased fares for transit riders. I don't like user fees and I don't like flat taxes. I don't think tolls are fair — they force every driver to pay the same amount, regardless of whether they are rich or poor. And there is little evidence to show that they will actually reduce car use.
Until there are other viable transit options, trying to punish people via tolls for using their cars is simply not going to work.
For rich drivers, the toll will be a barely noticed inconvenience, while for working-class people who are already struggling to make ends meet, and who depend on these highways, Tory's plan could take $1,000 out of their annual budget.
Tolls are not a "brave policy" for John Tory as some folks have suggested. This is easy politics for him. People who live downtown and who don't depend on these highways wouldn't have to pay anything, while folks who need to commute into Toronto would have to pay this new tax.
Ironically, some of us who do not support Tory's toll plan are being labeled as "conservative." Instead of falling into the all too easy "hasn't the NDP lost its way" narrative, I hope people will take another look at this issue.
It makes no sense to blame the NDP for Toronto's problems. Our city is floundering because for more than 20 years, Liberal and Conservative politicians have downloaded costs onto our city and cut off revenue. This began under Mike Harris, but it has continued to this day under Dalton McGuinty/Kathleen Wynne. Since Ontario washed its hands of transit subsidies in the mid-'90s, transit fares have skyrocketed and transit investment has not kept up with population growth, meaning more gridlock and worse transit service.
We are in this crisis largely because Ontario has cut corporate taxes to the point that we now have lower taxes than Alabama. As a result, the Ontario Government invests less in public services per person than any other province in Canada. Of course this has all been made worse by conservative leadership at City Hall in recent years that has inflamed rhetoric about taxes and cars and polarized the urban/suburban divide.
For many years, I have had to remind people that I'm not a better person because I take public transit and cycle — I'm a privileged person because I live and work downtown and that means I can take public transit and cycle. Fewer and fewer people are able to afford the privilege of living downtown. And contrary to what some downtowners might think, people who drive cars (and/or live in the suburbs) are actually not evil or ignorant, and they don't care less about the environment than we do.
I hope that progressives — particularly those who live downtown — will challenge the ideas put forward by conservatives like Tory at City Hall and the Liberals at Queen's Park, who would have us believe that the only way to pay for public services is by charging user fees (for drivers and riders) or by privatizing public services like Hydro.
Our recent experience with polarizing politics in Toronto should teach us to be in solidarity, not only with our fellow downtown bike-riders/transit riders, but also with those who live outside of downtown Toronto who need to get around too, and who have far greater mobility challenges than those of us who live downtown.
We need to rebuild our public infrastructure, and we need to do it in ways that are fair, so that we can earn the support of people across the GTA. If we fail to do that, we only open the door further to more wasted years with conservative politicians like Ford.
Similarly, we will win more support for a green economy if we ensure that the transition to a green economy takes everyone into account, and is rooted in principles of social justice. We need good green jobs, and public transit, for all.