Philip Preville: Why Kathleen Wynne needs Rob Ford
If Kathleen Wynne is to achieve anything for Toronto—and transit is top of the list—she needs Rob Ford to knock around
Back in mid-June, when the crack scandal had brought Rob Ford to his knees, it was Premier Kathleen Wynne who, with a few carefully chosen words, made his problems go away. She said publicly that she wanted to repair the rifts between them and that she would not “stand in judgment” of his personal or legal troubles. He could not have asked for a better endorsement. If the premier doesn’t care about a crack video, why should anyone else? The scandal was stashed in the bushes alongside his speech slurrings, conflict-of-interest court dramas and the rest.
Wynne’s move was as much calculus as conciliation. She needed Ford to do her bidding on a key file—namely getting council to approve a subway for Scarborough, which she wanted in advance of the August by-elections. She also proceeded to slap Ford around a bit on other files, the better to buttress her credibility outside Toronto. Shortly after she mended fences with him, reports surfaced that Queen’s Park planned to renege on $150 million in promised payouts to city hall known as the Toronto Pooling Compensation. Mayor Ford, now back on his feet, railed against the cuts and demanded a meeting with the finance minister, which he then stormed away from in frustration.
That dispute was the latest installment of a hoary little melodrama, staged at regular intervals and designed solely to put Toronto’s mayor in his place. Rebuking the big city is how Ontario premiers prove their mettle with the rest of the province, and the redder the mayor’s face gets, the better. For Wynne, a natural peacemaker, the act doesn’t come easily, but it’s a role she must play with relish if she’s going to accomplish the one key objective she has for the city, which is building more transit.
Getting anything done for Toronto will be an uphill battle. Not only is Wynne the first MPP elected within city limits to serve as premier since 1948, she is also a Toronto creation to her core—a symbol of the city’s openness and diversity, and a political animal born of local school board debates and megacity battles. She and her staff, keenly aware that she is vulnerable to charges of favouritism toward Toronto, began overcompensating from the moment she was sworn in, notably by putting her in charge of the agriculture portfolio—a.k.a. the Ministry of Not-Toronto. An agriculture minister from Toronto is a rarer creature than a premier from Toronto—Wynne is the first ever in Ontario’s history. Early reviews of her work on the portfolio have been positive, and farmers, long beset by perceived neglect, are delighted to have a red phone straight to the premier’s office.
Relations with city hall, by contrast, have more of a cold-war feel to them. The only matter of substance Ford and Wynne have agreed upon is the Scarborough subway. Queen’s Park had already earmarked $1.4 billion to rebuild the Scarborough RT. Now they’ll redirect the money to tunnel a subway instead. The federal government has also committed $660 million, and city council, which agreed in principle earlier this year to raise property taxes to raise the remaining balance, is expected to make good on its promise in the weeks ahead.
There’s still some dispute over exactly which route the trains will take, but one way or another, some kind of subway will get built in Scarborough. The bigger issue is all the other transit infrastructure the city needs, for which there is no money forthcoming from anyone. The Big Move, Metrolinx’s plan for regional transit expansion, was unveiled in 2008 at an estimated cost of $50 billion. Five years later, only $16 billion of its projects have been funded, and they don’t include such crucial ones as the downtown relief subway line. The province, which is projecting a deficit of $11.7 billion next year, cannot afford to finance the remaining two-thirds through its general tax revenues.
Wynne has already staked her administration’s future on dedicated revenues for transit—that is, new taxes and levies whose collections would go straight to transit construction before governments can direct them into other priorities or political pork. If Wynne does only one thing for Toronto during her time as premier, this ought to be it, because the city’s future as an economic powerhouse hangs in the balance. The usual estimate is that congestion costs the GTA’s economy $6 billion per year. But a new study from Benjamin Dachis, a senior policy analyst with the C. D. Howe Institute, says the real figure could be as high as $11 billion.
Meanwhile, other North American cities are resurgent with transit and transportation infrastructure construction, much of it funded through dedicated revenue streams. In Montreal, it’s a combination of gas taxes, vehicle registration fees and a property surtax. In Los Angeles, it’s a sales tax and tolls. In Portland, a payroll and self-employment tax contributes more than half of revenues. Vancouverites pay in myriad different ways, including a levy on their hydro bills.
Toronto lags so far behind the rest of the continent on this score that it’s embarrassing. Earlier this year, Metrolinx proposed a one per cent HST increase, a five-cent gas tax, a commercial parking levy and more, but those details hardly matter right now, because the city and the province still can’t agree on whether dedicated revenues should be used at all.
Wynne has promised that any revenues collected from rural Ontario will be spent in rural Ontario, not the GTA, but that hasn’t stopped the opposition parties from poisoning the debate with anti-Toronto parochialism. The New Democrats have floated a tax on banks to pay for transit, which is code for making downtown Toronto pay for Toronto’s pet transit projects. The Conservatives say they’d start by eliminating waste and pouring the money saved into transit before asking taxpayers for more. But there’s no guarantee the money would go to transit instead of debt reduction, health care, education, tax cuts or anything else. If either opposition leader takes over as premier, the Big Move will likely die a slow, boardroom-asphyxiation death.
Ford opposes dedicated revenues for transit: when asked about the idea last spring, he memorably made a retching sound into the microphone. But he also favours transit expansion, especially subways, and his inability to build new infrastructure with private sector money remains his largest policy pratfall. Wynne’s office believes she has the upper hand in this debate: the case for dedicated transit revenues is unassailable, and Ford’s failure is the proof. If Wynne needs to prop up Ford’s mayoralty just so she can win this one fight, she should go right ahead.
UPDATED: This story differs from the version that appears on page 43 of Toronto Life’s October 2013 print issue. It has been updated to reflect recent developments.