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.

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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.

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When the left takes the city

This week, the focus is on experience of left parties and organizations at the municipal level. Although the left has still exercised only limited political power in many places since the financial crisis, some cities have seen left projects come to power or build new institutions in interesting ways. My two guests shed light on two examples of municipal socialism in Europe and North America.

First, Yusef Quadura describes the experience of Barcelona en Comu. In 2015, this new left coalition took control of the municipal government in Barcelona. Led by the housing activist Ada Colau, the party did what Podemos couldn’t do nationally and garnered enough support to govern with the intention of implementing a left program, at least at the municipal level. To get a sense of the plans, accomplishments and challenges faced by Barcelona en Comu just over a year into its mandate, I spoke with Yusef, a member Barcelona en Comu’s international group. Yusuf is also part of the party’s co-ordinating committee in the Gracia district, where we met and talked over coffee (excuse the ambient noise), and a substitute counsellor for the Gracia district council.

My second guest is Kali Akuno, a leader within Cooperation Jackson, a municipal organization far beyond just a political party in Jackson, Mississippi. Although the group elected the radical Chokwe Lumumba as mayor of Jackson in 2014 (before he died tragically only a year into his term), electoral politics is only a small, supporting part of Cooperation Jackson’s mission. Kali describes what this network of worker-run cooperatives, party and movement congealed into one is up to and some of challenges it faces.

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