Toronto·Analysis

Why Kathleen Wynne put the brakes on Gardiner, DVP tolls

It's notable that Premier Kathleen Wynne travelled to the 905 to announce that she's rejecting Toronto's request to put tolls on its highways.

Next year's election, seats in the 905, hydro bills and Wynne's unpopularity all in play

Next year's election plays into the Wynne government's rejection of tolls on Toronto's Don Valley Parkway (pictured) and Gardiner Expressway. (Mike Crawley)

It's notable that Premier Kathleen Wynne travelled to the 905 Friday to announce that she's rejecting Toronto's request to put tolls on its highways. 

Voters in Peel, York and Durham regions would have faced paying a toll every time they drove into Toronto, had Wynne given the green light to the plan, and you can guarantee they would not have thanked the Liberal premier for it.

One of the fundamental rules of Ontario politics right now is that you can't win a majority without winning most of the seats in the 905.

And with families facing soaring hydro bills, skyrocketing house prices and new costs from cap-and-trade, Wynne obviously concluded that slapping a toll on tens of thousands of drivers/voters was politically unwise.   

Wynne's official explanation for why she's nixing her friend John Tory's plan is that she believes tolls should not be charged on highways unless drivers have alternatives, such as transit. 

"Commuters need reliable transit options in place before revenue-generating measures such as road tolls are implemented," she told the news conference. 

'People are having a hard time keeping up with the rising cost of living,' Premier Kathleen Wynne said in announcing her rejection of Toronto Mayor John Tory's road toll plan. 'We need to make sure that investing in transit isn't costing you more money.' (Premier of Ontario/YouTube)

But other things Wynne said peel back the curtain on the political explanation behind her move: the pocketbook issue of affordability is a big concern for voters right now.  

"You know that I have spent a lot of time in the last number of weeks talking to people about electricity prices," Wynne told reporters. "They're saying to me they're struggling with costs." 

She also emphasized the affordability issue in her speech. 

"I know that people are having a hard time keeping up with the rising cost of living," she said. "I hear it from people everywhere that I go. We need to make sure that investing in transit isn't costing you more money." 

So instead of allowing Toronto to levy a politically charged, highly visible toll to generate more money for transit, the government is doubling the portion of the gas tax it gives to municipalities for transit. It's doing so without raising the tax drivers pay at the pumps.

Cities to get $300M more for transit a year

The move will give Toronto an extra $170 million per year. City staff projected that a toll of $2 per trip on the Gardiner Expressway and Don Valley Parkway would have netted $166 million annually.

In total, more than $300 million extra per year will be spread across about 100 municipalities. Do the math: that makes for 99 happy mayors, to Toronto's lone unhappy one. It's a little-known but extremely useful strategy in provincial politics: keep mayors on your side because they have strong connections on the ground that can help you or hurt you at election time. 

Local politicians in the 905 commuter belt tell me folks in their cities were far from keen about the prospect of paying Toronto's tolls. 

Two months ago, I wrote this about road tolls: "With Wynne's personal popularity at an all-time low, with soaring hydro bills causing anger around the province, and with the incoming cap-and-trade program poised to push up the price of gas and home-heating fuel starting in January, some in her party will be telling her that voters' pocketbooks have had enough."

It's clear those arguments tipped the balance. Asked on Friday whether Liberal MPPs were urging her to nix the tolls because they are politically toxic, Wynne didn't deny it. 

"The voices in my caucus, in my government, are representative of the voices of the people that they work for," she said. "The compelling voices that I'm hearing in the province right now ... are even more importantly people who are struggling to pay their bills."

About the Author

Mike Crawley

Provincial Affairs Reporter

Mike Crawley is provincial affairs reporter in Ontario for CBC News. He has won awards for his reporting on the eHealth spending scandal and flaws in Ontario's welfare-payment computer system. Before joining the CBC in 2005, Mike filed stories from 19 countries in Africa as a freelance journalist and worked as a newspaper reporter in B.C.

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