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Saturday, May 11, 2013

Rob Ford's confederacy of dunces: Doubling down on dumb on transit in the GTA

If it were not so terribly serious, one could almost be amused by the latest sad battle cry of Toronto's deeply confused politicians, calling on the province to give them subways that they ultimately want no one, at all, to pay for. To paraphrase Dire Straits, they seem to want to get their money from nothing and their transit for free.

And dire straits are exactly what transit plans for Toronto are in, now depending on a minority Liberal austerity government, whose only potential de facto budget "partners", the NDP, have outright rejected the proposed dedicated transit taxes and whose Hudak Tory opponents would no doubt cancel most existing transit plans, just as their 90's equivalent Mike Harris did. While the Liberals have indicated a willingness to support what is known as the "Big Move", the $50 billion long term  plan to expand and integrate transit in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) and beyond, they have also made it clear, very recently, that they are open to rethinking it.

In the midst of this already negative political context for transit advocates and funding,  Toronto City Council this past Thursday (May 9) has voted to ask the province to reject thirteen potential revenue tools for the Big Move, and refused to actually endorse the two revenue tools that it did not ask to be outright rejected!  They have also muddied the waters even further by changing their mind, yet again, after signing a legal agreement just a year ago, on whether or not they support a Sheppard St. subway expansion or LRTs. This development is a complete fiasco and a truly serious setback given that the council meeting and vote itself were held against the wishes of Mayor Rob Ford and his Executive Committee and was expected to have been a moment of triumph for the pro-transit wing of council.
But, with a handful of notable exceptions, many councillors got cold feet. In a move of almost unbelievable political short-sightedness and cowardice, the council has all but handed the Wynne Liberals, who thanks to a generation of tax cuts dating back to the mid-90's find themselves cash strapped, the perfect way out of future dedicated funding commitments should they chose to seize the opportunity.

In a shocking and explicit admission that what had transpired was an outright manifestation of crass gutlessness, we have one of Toronto's least principled elected officials, Josh Colle, speaking of his role in this farce:

Centrist councillor Josh Colle said he proposed councillors vote against, rather than for, specific levies to give tax-shy colleagues “cover” to leave some on the table, in effect endorsing them.
“We as a council endorsed revenue tools as something to use. Obviously when it got down to the specifics there was less willingness to cite them,” he said, adding the province will view the vote as endorsing a regional sales tax and one-time development charges.
The city manager’s report estimates the two levies together could generate up to $1.5 billion per year.
What neither the article nor Colle note is that even if this estimate is true, it is at least $1 billion short per year of what is required for the Big Move.

After this vote the Liberal austerity government can simply say that Toronto's elected officials have flip-flopped so many times on the nature of the transit that they wish to see built, and are so clearly unwilling to have a serious discussion about dedicated funding sources for it, that no consensus exists to get anything done. Who, they could note, are they to implement a plan against the will of the people's representatives in Toronto?

This was all very predictable in a way. Why, given the fantasy world our political leaders and, obviously, the business "community" seem to live in when it comes to taxes, would we expect anything different to happen?

The Toronto Region Board of Trade, while finally becoming a rare business group to acknowledge the reality that new revenue tools were required for the government to achieve an objectively necessary investment in infrastructure, went about it in a totally self-serving way. While all of their specific proposals are worthy of consideration, and three of the four primary revenue generating proposals would also aid in the critically important environmental objective of creating a disincentive to driving, they notably leave out corporate and personal tax increases. (To be fair, in the case of personal tax increases, no one else is remotely proposing them either).

The provincial NDP eschews the dedicated revenue tools altogether, and has, as I have written of previously, chosen to propound a "Gravy Train" style fiction that it can all be paid for by closing corporate tax loopholes; a claim that is demonstrably and manifestly false. Sadly, some left-leaning councillors like Maria Augimeri, possibly looking towards a future in provincial politics, have parroted this line to the detriment of their constituents.

The "left wing" case, such as it is, against some of the revenue tools proposed is that they are regressive. For example, opponents of the idea of a fuel or gas tax have a farcically retrograde tendency to wax poetic about "poor" car drivers in the suburbs of Toronto who have to drive to work to survive and who will, presumably, be impoverished further by this.

Yet when it comes to consumption taxes, such as the fuel tax, that also achieve a completely obvious social and environmental objective both in terms of how the revenue accrued  will be spent and how it will impact on the driving behaviour of those paying it, this anti-tax narrative is dangerously misguided. Instead of talking about the "poor" car drivers, insofar as they exist, one might note the enormously positive impact of putting the fuel tax revenue into public transit, an investment from which far more poor and working class commuters, if that is who we are actually worried about, will benefit.

Further though, and equally apparent, is the fact that if we had an extensive and efficient, properly funded transit system in Toronto, with low or even no fares, maybe that "poor" driver would leave their car at home and take the subway, bus or LRT. And what, exactly, would be wrong with that? In fact, well beyond the borders of Toronto, the future of the planet may well depend on such changes.
In reality, however, these politicians are not really talking about the poor at all. The "poor", in this case, are being used as a transparently flimsy excuse to oppose a socially and environmentally progressive tax as they wish to avoid being seen as advocating for something that they are worried will alienate middle class suburban convenience drivers.  And convenience drivers are what almost all GTA drivers who do not car pool are.

This is a textbook case of how "progressives" joining into phoney notions of how taxes "hurt" working people are the best allies the Right has. They soft sell a reactionary message.
As to Toronto's Right, they are are now feeling greatly emboldened. And so they should. Some of their number have been somewhat circumspect, perhaps realizing the potential backlash to celebrating an attack on essential transit expansion too publicly.

Typically Rob Ford, however,  is loudly hailing what has transpired as a victory for "taxpayers", that mythical person that the Right has created to replace the more civic minded sounding "citizen" of bygone eras. Veritably gushing with enthusiasm that any serious commitment to funding desperately needed transit in the city he is mayor of has now been repudiated by the city government itself, Ford, with his usual lack of coherence or grip on reality, effused:

“I’d advise her [Wynne] to not even talk about revenue tools any more,” said a jubilant Ford. “I feel fantastic. We fended off the wolves today and saved the taxpayers at least $1,000 a family, a household, and I couldn’t be happier."
“This is one of the greatest days in Toronto history,” said the mayor who had earlier chided councillors for daring to support taxes he said the provincial government couldn’t be trusted not to stick in a “slush fund.”
Given that what the councillors had just voted against was supporting dedicated funding for transit, the "slush fund" that the mayor is referring to is, in fact, public transit.

He may get his wish. Wynne may yet stop talking about revenue tools. If she does, the city's transit expansion plans will be stalled and stymied yet again.

And maybe that was the point all along.

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