As opposition begins to mount against Toronto Mayor John Tory's new plan to impose tolls on the city's two biggest expressways, he challenged his critics to explain where they would find the billions needed for transit and other infrastructure.
"I would certainly invite those who are opposed to the option that I've put forward to stand up and say how they are going to build the transit, and how they are going to pay for it," Mr. Tory said after unveiling his plan on Thursday.
He said the city's years of underinvestment mean a "day of reckoning" is at hand, and that Toronto must finally find ways to fund the billions in projects it needs but cannot afford to build: "I think not to act, not to spell out how you'd pay for it, and not to get on with building, would be irresponsible. And I just don't intend to be seen as that kind of a mayor."
In a speech at the Toronto Region Board of Trade, the Mayor laid out his case for road tolls on the Don Valley Parkway and Gardiner Expressway, which he estimated could be set at around $2 a trip and raise up to $200-million a year for roads and transit, while easing congestion. Mr. Tory said the $2 was not a final number, just a hypothetical price. City bureaucrats say the tolls could not be implemented for three to five years.
Mr. Tory's plan also calls for a new hotel-room tax, and some other tax reforms. But he rejected a long list of other proposed levies in a staff report released Thursday, and repeated his pledge not to hike residential property tax rates above the rate of inflation.
Environmental groups and the Board of Trade favour of the mayor's toll plan. The Canadian Taxpayers Federation, the Ontario Trucking Association are opposed, as is colourful suburban city councillor Giorgio Mammoliti, who sent out a cartoon of himself boxing with Mr. Tory. Several suburban mayors also spoke out against the proposal, saying it's unfair to ask non-Toronto residents to pay for the city's infrastructure.
The pitch, which lit up social media, sparked heated online debate with some commenters calling tolls progressive and necessary, while others recoiled at the idea of "paying twice" for city infrastructure.
The tolls require provincial approval. Queen's Park insiders say Premier Kathleen Wynne's Liberal government is supportive, but still wary of anti-tax sentiment among voters. It will likely want Mr. Tory to show he has firm backing from council and others.
Mr. Tory, who long opposed tolls and made it a centrepiece of his failed 2003 mayoral campaign against David Miller, says his policy reversal came as he saw the funding the city needed and the complications of other taxing options, which range from levies on parking spots and booze to income or sales taxes.
He also said 40 per cent of drivers on the two expressways come in from outside the city, and so don't pay property taxes toward maintaining them.
A 2015 city staff report said an electronic tolling system for the Gardiner and DVP could cost up to $50-million to install and more than $30-million a year to run. Using a $3 toll, it projected that 9 per cent of traffic on the Gardiner and 12 per cent on the Don Valley would be diverted to other roads or public transit, with a "modest" positive effect on travel times on the two tolled expressways.
The rush to raise revenue comes as the city grapples with its annual budget hole, which is pegged for 2017 at more than $500-million. But the tolls, and many of the other proposed taxes floated by city staff, would take so long to implement they would be of no help for 2017.
Sources say the mayor's office believes it has the votes to get the tolling idea through council. But several councillors on all sides of the political spectrum approached on Thursday were non-committal.
Councillor Shelley Carroll, who represents Ward 33 (Don Valley East) just northwest of the DVP, was Mr. Miller's budget chief and has long supported the view that the city needs new sources of revenue. But she said the Mayor's tolling plan was unrealistic and would take a decade to come to pass: "It's not going to solve any problems. It's a magic elixir, but we don't get to drink it for a good 10 years."