Toronto·Analysis

Kathleen Wynne could pay political price for Toronto tolls

Toronto Mayor John Tory's aim to slap tolls on the Gardiner Expressway and Don Valley Parkway could become a crucial factor in deciding the next provincial election.

Toronto Mayor John Tory's quest for new revenue sources poses risk for provincial Liberals

Ontario's cities cannot impose road tolls unless the provincial government agrees. Toronto Mayor John Tory wants tolls on the Gardiner Expressway and the Don Valley Parkway, posing a political risk for Premier Kathleen Wynne. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

Toronto Mayor John Tory's proposal to slap tolls on the Gardiner Expressway and Don Valley Parkway has political implications for all Ontarians, even those whose daily commute takes them nowhere near these highways.

That's because it could be a crucial factor in deciding the next provincial election. 

Some 35 per cent of the vehicles on the Gardiner and DVP each day are from outside Toronto, according to the city's transportation department. That's 120,000 vehicles per day, the vast majority of those carrying voters from the 905 region, the seat-rich suburban battleground where Ontario elections are won or lost. 

Under provincial law, the authority to allow Toronto to charge road tolls rests with cabinet.

You can bet that if the tolls prove politically unpopular, the opposition parties will make sure that voters know Premier Kathleen Wynne and her Liberals paved the way. And since the provincial election in spring 2018 precedes the municipal elections that fall, Wynne has to face voters first. 

It's basically impossible to win power in Ontario these days without taking the bulk of the seats in the 905. Voters there who don't like being tolled every time they drive into Toronto don't get to turf Tory, so may instead take their frustrations out on Wynne. 

Is she prepared to face voters' wrath over opening the door to tolls? We don't know yet, because she wasn't available to reporters on Thursday and neither the PCs nor the NDP raised the tolls issue during Question Period.   

The Gardiner Expressway carries 228,000 vehicles each weekday, nearly one-third of them from outside Toronto, according to the city's transportation department. (Aaron Harris/Canadian Press)

However, Wynne's MPPs in the 905 commuter belt sounded a little nervous Thursday about the potential political fallout, although their words toed the party line that everything's OK.

"Well, it's an issue that needs to be addressed and I recognize that these are proposals that are being suggested and we need to walk through what those impacts are," said Finance Minister Charles Sousa, who represents Mississauga South, where the Gardiner becomes the QEW. 

I asked Transportation Minister Steven Del Duca about how the car-driving voters of Vaughan would feel about road tolls in Toronto. He swatted away the question: "What I hear loud and clear from the people in Vaughan is that they're very excited about the unprecedented amounts that we're investing in infrastructure."

Wynne has talked tolls since 2010

For as long as I've been covering Queen's Park, Ontario politicians have had a knee-jerk reaction against road tolls.  

Wynne, however, has nibbled around the issue as far back as 2010, when she was transportation minister. When the province's environmental commissioner called for road tolls as a way to reduce greenhouse gases, Wynne said there were absolutely no plans for tolls on existing highways, but emphasized the need for "an intelligent conversation about how to fund transit infrastructure over the next generation."

That conversation ensued after Wynne became premier in 2013. As she floated a range of options to pay for new road and transit infrastructure, the words "revenue tools" became part of the Ontario political vocabulary . 

Now, in 2016, with Tory pushing for tolls, Wynne faces a choice. Will she approve the idea or put on the brakes?

Her strong stance on climate change would suggest it'd be hypocritical of her not to support tolls. And there are strong arguments in favour of tolls that will resonate with the many voters who aren't frequent highway drivers, provided the money is actually spent on improving transit.

But 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. 

Tolls could be ammunition for PCs, NDP 

Keep an eye on where the opposition parties run with the toll issue. 

"I do not support the tolls on the DVP and Gardiner," PC leader Patrick Brown told reporters at the Legislature on Thursday. "I hope that Kathleen Wynne has not given support to the city of Toronto to pursue this."

After coming out strongly against tolls in the last election, NDP leader Andrea Horwath is now refusing to say explicitly where she stands. 

"This debate about how much more poor people and low income folks and working families are going to have to pay to ride the buses and use the roads is the wrong debate," Horwath said Thursday. "Why aren't the other levels of government stepping up to the plate and helping municipalities with the burden of providing transit?"

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