Call it a City Hall miracle. On Monday, Mayor Rob Ford’s generally very conservative Executive Committee endorsed the idea of a regional working group tasked with looking at a funding strategy for transit expansion in the Greater Golden Horseshoe—a funding strategy that will almost definitely include increased parking fees, road tolls and/or an additional GTA sales tax, amongst other things that normally make right-leaning politicians freak the hell out.
It was a surprising move. The motion, drafted by Councillor Josh Matlow and then brought to the committee on a referral vote, looked destined for the mayor’s trashcan. Ford has never been very interested in transit policy discussion that goes beyond repeating the word “subways” a bunch of times and then muttering about the private sector. Matlow’s strategy diverts away from that, essentially pointing out that if we want to build transit we need to, you know, pay for it. With actual money.
And to get money we need to look at taxes and fees, even if those kinds of things aren’t always super popular with voters.
The big vote on Monday stands as the strongest indication yet that this town is ready to grow up, get serious and embrace its identity as a Big City that needs to build—and pay for—the things that make Big Cities work. A quick glance at the speaker’s list on the motion reveals that transit funding isn’t just a left-wing hobby horse. In addition to written endorsements from residents, the committee also saw supportive deputations from notorious tax-haters the Toronto Board of Trade, development consultant Steven Diamond and retired planner Paul Bedford, whose speaking notes included several sentences written entirely in capital letters. (For example: “VISION WITHOUT EXECUTION IS HALLUCINATION!”)
Even more notable: the gaggle of (mostly) Ford-supporting councillors who ultimately approved the motion also turned down an opportunity to rule out sales taxes and road tolls entirely. Toward the end of the debate, the always-surprising Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong tried to pass an amendment taking those revenue sources off the table, but he was soundly voted down by his colleagues. This bunch of self-professed fiscal conservatives didn’t take that bait. (The vote went unrecorded, but word is that the mayor himself was the lone supporter of Minnan-Wong’s no-tax, no-tolls gambit.)
This isn’t a slam dunk, of course. There’s a long ride ahead of us before politicians and bureaucrats actually put together a sensible funding strategy for transportation infrastructure. As a rule, I’m wary of legislation that calls for working groups or panels, because they can drag on for a long time and often go nowhere. It’s even worse when the provincial government is involved, as they’re generally not overly interested in collaborating with cities. This is, after all, the same provincial government who once kicked all the local politicians off the Metrolinx board and replaced them with a mostly-opaque slate of connected businesspeople.
But let’s not let cynicism erase the principled victory that took place at City Hall this week. Only a few years back, a politician saying the words “road tolls” was close to heresy. David Miller, in his first mayoral bid, had to famously reject the idea of road pricing outright just to maintain electoral viability. And a sales tax for cities? Forget it. Miller had enough trouble passing a five-bucks-a-month vehicle registration fee.
But now, under the auspices of a political administration headed by the most anti-tax, anti-transit mayor we’ve ever seen, Toronto is really starting to talk about transit and how to pay for it. This city expected a long, strange trip when it elected Rob Ford, but no one predicted we’d end up here.