Austerity Fiscal policy Municipal Ontario

The road tolls for thee

Last week, Toronto mayor Join Tory announced a plan to toll two major Toronto highways, the Gardiner and the DVP. The city is starved for cash with huge shortfalls for both infrastructure (new housing, new transit lines) and even everyday operating expenses. Tolls are supposed to help close this gap. But despite the absolutely huge revenue needs of this city, there a case to be made against tolls from the left.

There is a simple practical argument against the proposed tolls: they won’t raise very much money and any revenue is years away. City planners calculate about $200 million per year of new money once tolls are in place. That may sound like much but Toronto needs are in the vicinity of $30 billion just to catch up with a growing population and ageing infrastructure. And the city needs the money now.


John Tory has challenged those who oppose the tolls to spell out the alternative. Taxing parking spaces would raise $500 million and could be done right away. Getting residential and commercial property taxes to at least match long-term inflation and beat it, even with the necessary rebates for those house-rich, income-poor, would raise another huge chunk of cash. This isn’t even getting to more creative options—many of them included in an appendix to a KPMG report commissioned by Metrolinx.

Given the revenue crisis, lefties could easily come up with a viable, progressive money-raising plan even from a list prepared by the market-friendly consultants at KPMG. A municipal income tax? Why not since the province and the feds are raising less then they used to through this measure. Even a municipal sales tax with hefty rebates for low-income and working-class folks. It’s not a question of options but political strategy.

Unfortunately, mainstream opposition to tolls, including from the Ontario NDP, fails on this account. The NDP largely falls into a dangerous pocketbook politics that has consumed so much of the party’s energy, both in Ontario and federally. Opposing tolls without talking even more loudly about the big picture plays straight into the hands of the Conservatives.

The only option is putting the issue in class terms. There is a link between relatively small issues like road tolls, two decades of grinding austerity and very uneven economic growth. People get this. There is an existing car culture alongside growing awareness of climate change and the scale of necessary transformation. But if someone hears politicians making only the pocketbook argument, why consider the NDP, when they can go for the real deal Conservatives?

Beyond the NDP, tolls have managed to deeply polarise opinion on the left, especially for an issue that is relatively obscure. There is a real argument and it’s necessary to recognize that the left is in a bit of a catch-22 position. Here are two big arguments I’ve heard in favour of the proposed highway tolls:

  1. Climate change is a defining crisis of our time: if we want to get people out of their cars, we need to take all the small steps we can. Roads should be tolled because car use is heavily subsidized.
  2. This move is a step out of the anti-tax rhetoric of the right; we have to seize upon it. This opens the door to other revenue tools.

Both of these arguments are credible, but fall short. Roads do not exist in a vacuum; we have built a toxic car culture over decades. Of course, without better options, people will accept the tolls. Some section of poor and working class drivers at the margin will change their behaviour, probably forced into very long commutes on inadequate transit. This is simply punitive and, at the same time, does little for climate change. Liberal and right-wing environmentalism see not car culture, individualism and decades of bad urban design driven by capitalism and racism, but individual people as culprits.

There is a limit to such arguments; lots of small changes do end up making sizeable differences and people are not just victims of structures. Here’s where consistency and long-term political strategy come in. Our aim should be to support the right small changes that can feed off each other, unite in a consistent strategy and ultimately create the biggest differences. The job of the left is to facilitate the creation of better options alongside better politics so we collectively make choices to use those options. (Almost as if there were a dialectic…)

“But bus and subway riders already pay a toll!” is a common counter-argument. Tolls apply consistency. This, however, is just as easily an argument for eliminating transit fares as it is for tolling roads. Public services and infrastructure should be free for users and paid out of general revenues. That’s how redistribution works. The end goal should be an expansive, free transit system that overtakes road infrastructure, and at the same time redistributes resources from the richer to the poorer.  Toronto city hall has raised transit fares for six of the last seven years! The left should be fighting these increases tooth-and-nail, and putting more energy into this fight than that over road tolls.

Think of it as carrots and sticks. Tolls are a stick. More transit, progressive revenue tools and better urban planning are carrots. Both seek to change what people do but in radically different ways. Tolls and other user fees assume a society of abstract equality: sure, everyone pays for exactly what they use, but not everyone has the same means to pay. Maybe at some point in the future driving (especially for single occupants) will be able to become an expensive, luxury good. Step one is creating the alternative for those who can’t afford this luxury. Once car use is an expensive niche—its price driven up by limited demand and diseconomies of scale—tax it all you want.

Creating deeper equality was at the heart of the welfare state bargain that has been blown apart not just by greater capital mobility, with money easily fleeing to tax havens, but also by class war that has transformed how governments mete out carrots and sticks. The highest point of the welfare state included not just high income taxes but high consumption taxes; everyone paid more into the common coffer, even in some regressive ways, but got a lot more in return.

Today we’re nearly back to the beginning again. People have seen services deteriorate and the rich escape paying their fair share. To build a broad left majority, we need to do some equalizing first. Taxing the rich to pay for what we need is a necessary starting point of even the most basic social democratic politics today. Road tolls are just a small example of a policy that won’t build a broad working class coalition because it doesn’t account for the fact that the bargain it imagines is long gone.

I recently heard Hugh MacKenzie of the CCPA say that Mike Harris and the Conservatives dramatically reduced Ontario’s government revenues and the Liberals under both McGuinty and Wynne have spent 15 years cutting expenditures to get them in line. This two-stage austerity hustle sets a trap for the left: any new revenue will seem worthwhile, even if it transforms the state even further along neoliberal lines. It is credulous to imagine that John Tory will institute tolls today and a municipal income tax or even slightly higher property taxes the next. If tolls are a tactic to divide opposition to his bigger agenda of continuing to transform Toronto into a neoliberal playground for the rich, then he’s succeeding.

Issues like tolls shouldn’t simply further divide the left but can be an opportunity to think through our arguments together. There is a common, consistent thread that links opposition to road tools with both raising revenues and deeply pro-ecological politics. Here’s a simple three-point plan that should answer at least some of the criticism launched by supporters of tolls on the left:

  1. lower transit fares,
  2. expand transit infrastructure (and spend less on car infrastructure), and
  3. raise government revenues progressively.

Can we build on something like this?


One reply on “The road tolls for thee”

Road tolls are regressive. Period.
If Toronto wants funds, they need to dig into their own pockets instead of those of their neighbours.
They need to raise property taxes so that they are at least equal to the provincial average. Right now, Torontonians pay an average of about 0.85% (compared to a provincial average of 1.1%) on an average assessed house value of less than $400,000 (when the average price is actually well over $1 million).

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