Why Kathleen Wynne put the brakes on Gardiner, DVP tolls
Next year's election, seats in the 905, hydro bills and Wynne's unpopularity all in play
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.
- How the Liberals could pay the political price for Toronto tolls
- Why Kathleen Wynne is so unpopular, and what she can do about 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.
"Commuters need reliable transit options in place before revenue-generating measures such as road tolls are implemented," she told the news conference.
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."