Archived columns and blog posts by Matt Elliott

Knocking down common arguments against new taxes for GTA transit

By: Metro Canada Published on Tue Apr 23 2013

A few weeks back, I drew a line between those who deny the need for new funding sources to build transit in the GTA and those who persist in denying the science of climate change. Since then, we've heard a number of arguments attempting to justify why the region doesn't need new taxes, tolls and fees to fight crippling traffic congestion.

None of these arguments have convinced me. At best, the reasoning seems to come from a place of idle obliviousness, where the very real crisis of congestion gets downplayed as something we might want to get to addressing at some point, but, hey, what's the rush? At worst, the arguments are actively anti-transit and zealously anti-tax.

Let's go through three of the more common reasons given for why we shouldn't implement new mechanisms for funding transit now.

The 'Let the Perfect be the Enemy of the Good' Argument

I'm not unsympathetic to this one. It suggests that, in an ideal world, a laundry list of sales taxes, gas taxes and other things wouldn't be necessary to fund transit, because government would just leverage the fairest and most progressive form of taxation out there — the income tax.

But there's been virtually no analysis of using either personal or corporate income taxes to build transit, with most reports dismissing the idea out of hand. Which is a bit odd, considering that most of the infrastructure we use today was built with income tax revenue and rates have been mostly declining for years.

The problem appears to be that the idea of using personal income taxes is politically toxic. Just 16% of people polled in an Ipsos Reid survey commissioned by Toronto City Hall supported the notion. Leveraging corporate taxes seems to be a more popular strategy, but that apparently comes with its own set of complications. (It would be nice if these were spelled out.)

Ultimately though, so what if all income taxes are off the table? Lamentable, sure, but is that reason enough to shut down the conversation?

This argument goes like this: maybe we wouldn't need new taxes and such to fund transit if the Ontario government hadn't wasted so much money on things like eHealth, ORNGE, various gas plant cancellations and, um, maybe if Toronto City Hall hadn't bought so much hand sanitizer.

This argument is flawed on a couple of fronts. First, even if those alleged government screw-ups amounted to enough wasted money to fund large-scale transit expansion, we can't really do anything about that now. There's no way to get that money back. Any funding plan that implicitly starts with “step one: invent time travel” is probably doomed to fail.

And then there's the fact that transit expansion costs way more money than most people seem to understand. The $275 million the Ontario Auditor General says was spent to cancel a Mississauga gas plant seems like a lot of money in most contexts, but in terms of transit it doesn't even work out to a single kilometre of underground subway construction.

This one usually comes hand-in-hand with the time machine argument, because it too invokes the spectre of ORNGE and the St. Clair streetcar right-of-way and other supposed government-led travesties, then asks how it is that we could possibly trust government to build a $50 billion transit plan when they've screwed up so many things.

I get the sentiment, but the argument both lets government off the hook from actually tackling an incredibly important issue and brings with it no credible alternative. If we can't trust the government to do this, then who can we trust? Yes, there's an inherent risk to taking on huge projects, but there's a risk to doing nothing, too. We've already lost billions in economic output due to unaddressed mobility issues.

Today, in a possibly doomed attempt to fix that, Mayor Rob Ford's Executive Committee is set to debate a slate of funding tools recommended by staff at City Hall. We'll likely hear some of the arguments above, plus another few dozen — there's no shortage of hypothetical reasons to delay and dawdle, to push back transit expansion by another few years.

But from where I'm standing, all that is effectively countered with this argument: we've waited far too long already.

This post was originally published at on 2013-04-23T00:00:00.000Z

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Matt Elliott

City Hall watcher, columnist and policy wonk in Toronto.
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