McGuinty Busts it Open


Here I was, thinking about writing an open letter to Warren Kinsella, trying to warn him off (fruitlessly, I’d imagine) a negative campaign against John Tory and Randy Hillier, when McGuinty genuinely surprises me. I may still send out that open letter, but after this past Friday I may have to change a few details.

My fear with the coming Ontario election was that the Ontario Liberals would refuse to run on their record, and focus instead on tying John Tory to the legacy of Mike Harris, and to the statements of the more controversial candidates on the Tory team. This did not strike me as productive; it struck me as an acknowledgement that the Liberals offer only basic competence to run on, and that they have that nasty little Health Tax Premium controversy to try and get the voters to forget about. But then, around noon last Friday, McGuinty abandoned mere competence, quiet incremental approaches and safe campaigns for one of the boldest policies on public transportation that I’ve seen in a generation.

MoveOntario 2020 is an obvious election goody, and at $17.5 billion, it’s sure to make fiscal conservatives blanche, but cities have been calling for such funding for years. Congestion is choking the economy of the Greater Toronto Area and risks costing us far more than this investment. These 52 projects (coupled with a map) represent a collection of almost everybody’s wishlist, and will result in significant improvements to the mobility of the Greater Toronto Area between now and 2020. Rather than drawing lines on a map and hampering its own projects by having to start the planning process afresh, the McGuinty government has focused on plans that cities have already long studied, or where work is already underway, suggesting that we may see shovels in the ground before the 2011 election, assuming the McGuinty Liberals are reelected.

Oh, and Kitchener-Waterloo gets its LRT (or BRT).

This could be pie in the sky, of course, and McGuinty still has the credibility issue of his Health Care Premium to overcome, but there are a surprising number of details in this proposal, which makes me believe that the Liberals don’t intend MoveOntario 2020 to quiet fade away come November (and quite possibly they sense they can’t afford to, since at $17.5 billion, such a false promise would dwindle the Health Care Premium tax grab to insignificance).

First of all, the McGuinty government is committing to pay two-thirds of the cost of these projects, absolving cash-strapped cities of their share. It has been suggested that this announcement is retroactive, covering projects that have already been successfully financed, such as the Spadina subway extension to York University. If this is the case, the Liberals have just handed Toronto and York Region close to $350 million in money they’d already committed to spending on this project — money that can either be handed back to taxpayers, or put to needed infrastructure projects that the province hasn’t committed to funding.

More importantly, by cutting municipal contributions out of the loop, the McGuinty Liberals have removed one of the two possible points of failure in any of the funding arrangements. Now it’s all down to a proposed contribution of $6 billion from the federal government, and it has been hinted that, even if that money isn’t forthcoming, with 2/3rds of the cash on the table, we can still proceed with a number of these projects, waiting the feds out until the political realities change, or simply accepting a slower pace of progress.

Secondly, the Liberals have costed out the proposal and told voters how they they intend to pay for it. Of the $12 billion the Liberals commit, the Liberals promise to finance this over fifty years, suggesting to me that they intend to issue bonds — a wise investment to make if you believe as many do that investments such as this will pay off in real economic growth over the next fifty years. This means that the money is available, and isn’t reliant on a significant improvement of Ontario’s fiscal fortunes. This may also be another reason why the cities were cut out of the funding loop; provincial taxpayers are more likely to save money and actually get things done if the province acts as the sole borrower, rather than having over a dozen municipalities scramble to raise their own funds.

Finally, there is the fact that the 52 projects represent a comprehensive network throughout the GTA, rather than a subway here to placate Vaughan and an LRT there to buy somebody else’s vote. Steve Munro has a detailed rundown of what these projects represent and how they relate to each other, not to mention why we can believe that this represents more than just pie in the sky. Until this year, he’d been pretty cynical about the prospect of decent investments in public transportation, but his attitude has changed. He has been involved in transit advocacy for over thirty-five years, so if he sees reason to hope at long last, then so do I.

I didn’t vote for McGuinty in 2003 (I instead voted Green), and I was seriously considering voting Conservative this time around (an easy thing to do when your Conservative candidate is Elizabeth Witmer). McGuinty’s MoveOntario proposal has stopped me short, however. Yes, there is a credibility issue to overcome, and yes, my willingness to vote Liberal will be tempered by the negative campaigning that’s sure to come, but I want these proposals to bear fruit.

So now I turn my attention to John Tory, whom I like. Campaigning for mayor of Toronto, he showed an understanding of the city’s issues that I feel has carried through to his leadership of the Progressive Conservative party. His transportation policy promised significant investments and talked a good game, but was short on details and even shorter on providing cost estimates. Hearteningly, some of the initial reaction from the Conservatives to the MoveOntario proposal was that the Liberals had stolen their ideas. Really? Well, that’s good then, as it suggests that the plan isn’t killed by a potential Conservative victory in October (we hope). If the Conservatives are willing to match the Liberal proposal in terms of funding commitments, and timeline, then I will be very optimistic about the future of southern Ontario, and I won’t be compelled to vote against Tory (indeed, I still even be willing to vote for Witmer).

There’s still plenty of time before the election, and I’ll be watching the Conservative platform with interest.

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