Reevely: Cheaper driving or better transit — Ontario parties’ transportation pledges starkly different

Despite his vows to give Ottawa $1 billion for the next stage of light rail construction, Doug Ford’s dodgy budget plan means he can’t be trusted to follow through, Liberal Leader Kathleen Wynne said in a campaign stop at an OC Transpo train yard Thursday morning.

All the parties have competed for two days over who will make getting around easiest and cheapest. What they choose to emphasize says a lot about their philosophies.

On Wednesday, Ford promised his Progressive Conservatives will cut gasoline taxes by 10 cents a litre to help drivers. Thursday, Wynne touted the Liberals’ record of multibillion-dollar transit spending and brought out a patched-up version of a broken Liberal promise to cut the price of car insurance. The New Democrats’ Andrea Horwath stood up in Toronto to promise hundreds of millions of dollars for city transit operating budgets.

The Tories’ gas-tax cut directly imperils transit plans across the province, both Wynne and Horwath said, and Wynne said most people wouldn’t even notice the 10 cents.

“One of the things about infrastructure is, when you take big gaps, that’s when you get into trouble, because that’s when you lose that expertise, you lose that momentum,” Wynne said in the Walkley Yards train shop near South Keys, after riding in on an O-Train. “The reality is Doug Ford, at this moment, is taking money out of the very funds that help to build infrastructure. By saying he’ll take 10 cents out of the gas tax, that’s a billion-and-a-bit dollars. That is huge, huge support every year, for building support, building infrastructure around the province.”

The provincial government gives cities a share of its gas-tax revenue to use on transit construction at their discretion and it also delivers bags of cash for specific projects. Ottawa is counting on both kinds of money to pay for its light-rail plans. After the first phase through downtown opens in the fall, the second stage includes extensions to Moodie Drive in the west, Baseline station and Algonquin College in the southwest, Riverside South in the southeast, and Trim Road in the east.

Ford has promised that the gas-tax money that already goes to cities won’t be affected — the whole tax cut will come out of the province’s end of the $2.6-billion-a-year tax. Local Progressive Conservatives, including their most prominent incumbent Lisa MacLeod, have sworn up and down that the extra billion for the next phase of light rail is safe.

But Wynne said that the pileup of new spending and tax cuts the Tories have promised to offset with unspecified “efficiencies” ($8 billion now, with another $12 billion to find if a Ford-led government seeks to balance the budget) leaves everything questionable.

A 10-cent-a-litre tax cut wouldn’t affect people much, she added, with gasoline costing about $1.30 a litre now.

“The prices fluctuate. The prices vacillate wildly,” she said. “There are global forces that are forcing gas prices up. (Ford)’s suggesting that taking money out of the gas tax, to stop building transit projects, is a good idea, and I’m saying that’s a bad idea, that’s a really short-sighted idea.”

As Wynne’s buses headed for her next stop in Kingston, the Liberals followed up with a promise to order insurance companies to stop using where customers live as a factor in setting their insurance rates. Drivers in the Toronto suburbs pay sharply higher prices — the same driver would pay $2,268 in expensive Brampton, $1,007 in Ottawa, and a low of $850 in some small towns, according to a roundup by online quote-finder Kanetix — so this is essentially a promise to make other drivers subsidize ones in Greater Toronto.

In 2013, to get New Democratic Party support for Wynne’s first budget as premier, she promised to cut car-insurance prices by 15 per cent by reforming the regulations on the industry. They never got as far as a 10-per-cent cut, and Wynne re-cast the promise as a “stretch goal.” That understandably infuriated the New Democrats. So did the new promise, which the Liberals ripped off from an NDP proposal the Liberals shot down in 2012.

“What makes Ontarians feel cynical about politics? Today, Wynne is promising to do the exact thing she voted down and blocked not long ago,” the NDP said.

Like the other parties, the New Democrats have promised to back Ottawa’s rail plans. Their really big-ticket promise on transportation is to cover half what cities spend on subsidizing their transit systems. That would mean $140 million a year for Ottawa, $330 million for Toronto, and smaller but still serious amounts of money for other municipalities.

“Transit riders are cynical about the system, because it just keeps getting more crowded and more expensive,” Horwath said in Toronto, in a pitch that would have applied just as well here. “So let’s do something about it. Let’s replace that cynicism with hope. We can do better right now, with a transit plan that will improve service quality and access, address overcrowding and lead to a better commute for people across the city.”

Building transit lines is one thing, paying to run them well is another. Ottawa’s suburban councillors, especially, complain about spotty service on outlying bus routes and having to stretch existing budgets to cover new subdivisions every year. The NDP’s transfer would have them dancing in the streets as they make up their next city budget.

None of the parties hits just one note, but for the Progressive Conservatives, cheaper driving is the key transportation promise. For the Liberals, it’s building new heavy-transit lines. For the New Democrats, it’s beefing up the transit services we already have. They’re all big-money pledges and the one Ontario goes with will define our cities for years to come.

dreevely@postmedia.com
twitter.com/davidreevely

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