Whatever the ultimate outcome of Toronto Mayor John Tory’s massive political gamble to propose road tolls on the city’s two expressways, it exposed something quite remarkable: Toronto’s coming of age.
For years Toronto’s social and business leaders spun themselves in circles seeking an elusive tax solution to propose to our politicians. Many bold offerings came forth by some of the most counter intuitive organizations, ranging from the boards of trade and chambers of commerce to automobile lobbyists to various industry groups. And not one, but two provincial reports advanced recommendations, as did a City of Toronto staff report.
But never was there a general consensus reached. Every group of politicians had an issue with another’s proposal. Public opinion never crossed a threshold of political comfort. And not surprisingly, at each and every potentially pivotal moment our elected officials balked, retreating to the political safety of officiation.
We may have to wait for his memoirs to fully understand the political calculus that convinced Mayor Tory to pick the most controversial of all possible taxes to levy on a largely car loving electorate. Maybe it was blind gamble. Perhaps it was a legacy play of a popular mayor that simply cared less about the politics. Whatever the rationale, the response from the array of aforementioned civil society leaders and general public has been remarkable.
No one would claim the proposal approached perfection. It hardly papers over the grotesquely expensive Scarborough subway. The quantum of dollars it is expected to yield would take a century to cover the $30-billion backlog of unfunded capital commitments, including the controversial replacement of the eastern Gardiner. It does little to address the ever growing social inequity of our city. And as a very low (two dollars) flat fee, it can’t be expected to discourage peak rush hour congestion or encourage a significant shift to transit. Such shortcomings could be cause for the proposal’s unraveling. But as a measure of our city’s evolution, there is resistance to the perfection-as-the-enemy-of-the-good critique.
There is a sense that if we can’t rally behind a fiscally conservative mayor on such a proposal, who could we ever rally behind? It can’t be forgotten that even left-leaning mayoral candidate, Olivia Chow, was opposed to significant new taxes, and were she elected, could she ever have changed course as Tory has and propose them? And if she did could she have pulled the vote in Council?
In this context, Tory is asserting a leadership role that was uniquely his to take – a Nixon to China move that surprised most civic leaders. In doing so our civic leaders also surprised us. Within a week, a lineup of stakeholders from the Toronto Region Board of Trade, academics, industry associations, environmental groups, urban advocates, civil society organizations and citizen groups swung in behind the mayor with their support. Amazingly too, early public opinion polls have demonstrated strong support for the road toll proposal. Never before had such polling tipped over 50 per cent. Torontonians were clearly waiting to be led, recognizing that opposition was a recipe for the city slipping further behind on its growing infrastructure needs.
Significantly, given the recent opportunity to vote on similar proposals against a backdrop of much the same infrastructure pressures, Vancouverites rejected them. But in this instance, municipal politicians were not able to advance their leadership due to the requirement of the B.C. government for a referendum. Queen’s Park, on the other hand, is giving its big city government the autonomy to decide.
While a tax move is never a done deal until the final vote (which may be at the ballot box in the 2018 municipal elections), empowered with authority, emboldened by his convictions, and encouraged by the support, Mayor Tory may have pointed our city toward a new era of maturity and accomplishment. Toronto is showing that it is ready to do more for itself as a confident global city should.