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John Tory's plan for road tolls is as progressive as he is

Image: Flickr/Alex Guibord

John Tory, the right-wing mayor of the City of Toronto, has put forward a plan to help correct Toronto's budgetary deficit, and he's getting support from some progressive corners of the city.

Tory wants to toll two highways, and it's a hill (or two roads) that some progressives have decided to die on.

Perhaps it's a noble reaction. Only rich people drive, only suckers take the TTC, and in a city plagued with the WASPy morality of the 1800s, it makes sense that a policy of collective punishment should be shared broadly, regardless of how you commute.

Forget harm reduction. It seems anything that makes driving in Toronto an even more wretched experience should be embraced and generalized, even if it's a regressive flat tax that will hurt poorer people the most.

Tory wants to make Toronto a city for the rich: the cost of buying a home jumped from 2015 to 2016 by 13 per cent, 18 per cent if you consider only the cost of detached homes. Rent for two-bedroom apartments has increased by 8.9 per cent. Toronto is a city of record levels of poverty and its child-care costs spiked by 15 per cent to now be the highest in Canada.

And, most importantly, despite all the cuts that are being levied against public services and onto individuals, Toronto's police are having the party of the century with a budget that has ballooned from $865 million in 2008 to more than $1 billion.

More and more, people are being swept out of the downtown.

At the same time, Tory has been reluctant to introduce new taxes to address his fiscal imbalance. The current marginal tax rate for land transfers of the most expensive properties is just two per cent. And, while harmonizing the tax with provincial taxes, which would cost the average homebuyer just $750 and bring in $77 million, Tory wasn;t prepared to recommend that council pass this measure.

This is the context of John Tory's support for adding road tolls to the Gardiner Expressway and the Don Valley Parkway.

Tory is building a Toronto for the rich and these tolls will help make some space on Toronto's best access points. People who can afford $4 per day ($1,000 per year) will have better access to the city. People who can't will be forced onto minor roads like Lakeshore, Bayview and the Allen.

To their credit, the ONDP has voted against a motion to support road tolls. A long-time political staffer and one-time MPP quit over the motion. Clearly, road tolls are disorienting to a certain crust of NDPer.

Tory's plan is politically smart for several reasons. First, the people it'll affect will be driving in and out of the city: taxi drivers, delivery people, commuters from beyond TTC station nodes, and tourists (including day tourists from the GTHA). That is a lot of non-Toronto voters. It's a political move that probably won't hurt him in the polls.

Second, Tory is a right-winger. He already floated the privatization of Toronto Hydro. Getting people used to paying to use the Gardiner and the DVP would make it possible to start talking about full-scale privatization of these roads. Experience in the GTA with road privatization shows that it's doable, and when it's done, people will decide to take another road, further exacerbating congestion in the city.

This discussion is a red herring. The real issue is that neoliberal politicians would rather have us talk about road tolls than any other option. Nationalize (or metropolize) billboards? Cut the police budget in half? Increase land transfer taxes on the wealthy? Tax parking lots? Increase property taxes so that Toronto isn't among the lowest jurisdictions in Ontario?

The lack of will to consider new revenue streams has created a crisis that Tory will capitalize on.

Transit options for commuters across the 905 are steadily improving, but improvements to networks like GO Transit are still not nearly enough for people to ditch their cars. My own 905-based hometown doesn't even have a bus system, thanks in part to perennial calls to avoid mixing the racial purity of Georgetown with the kinds of people who need buses. Seriously. It's a regular kind of letter-to-the-editor at the Georgetown Independent and Acton Free Press.

In absence of any other option than using a car, levying a road toll on the drivers who come to Toronto is a flat tax that roots out those who can pay from those who can't pay.

So how does this become a clarion call for some progressives?

It's rooted in a crisis of imagination, both of thinking of new ways to find solutions to neoliberal policies, and for what would naturally come next if the left isn't up for the fight.

Debating tolls in theory is fine, but if you're involved in political organizing with actual humans, it's best to not align yourself with a millionaire like Tory. User fees for public infrastructure and flat fees are not progressive and must be resisted, especially if progressives want to have a hope in hell in reaching the average Mississauga commuter who can either decide to spend three hours a day on transit, or 50 minutes in a car. 

Tory picked tolls because they're politically distracting and they fit perfectly into a neoliberal lens of public infrastructure. And, with a left that can't even fight back against fare hikes on the TTC, putting road tolls in will be relatively easy.

If you're opposed to privatization, a toll plan under a right-wing administration is effectively creeping privatization. If you can't put that cat back into the bag, do everything you can to not let it escape in the first place.

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Image: Flickr/Alex Guibord

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