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Tory's Toronto

Metro's Matt Elliott, formerly of Ford For Toronto, keeps the light shining on Mayor John Tory's city hall.

Toronto's road toll plan is only as good as the things it will pay for

Sure, John Tory's pitch for the Gardiner and DVP is monumental — but there's still a long way to go when it comes to Toronto's cash-strapped budget.

John Tory announced his plan for road tolls at a time when the city is looking for new sources of revenue for the budget and specific infrastructure projects.

Eduardo Lima/Metro / Metro Order this photo

John Tory announced his plan for road tolls at a time when the city is looking for new sources of revenue for the budget and specific infrastructure projects.

Mayor John Tory’s surprise move last week to support highway tolls on the Don Valley Parkway and Gardiner Expressway is bold. It’s brave. It’s visionary.

It’s also a half-measure.

I write that with some hesitation. I don’t want to detract from how monumental it is for a Toronto mayor to give unqualified support to putting a price on driving. I also don’t want to lend any credibility to anti-toll whiners.

But the problem with Tory’s plan is simple. A funding strategy is only as good as what it will fund.

By that criteria, Tory’s toll plan falls short in a couple of ways.

First, it’s a strategy that doesn’t do anything to solve the city’s immediate budget woes. Tory’s speech last week was kind of like a fire chief responding to a forest fire by announcing a robust education plan for fire prevention. Sure, teaching people how to prevent fires is important, but things are burning now.

In the city’s case, the raging inferno is the operating budget. Even after approving a 10-cent fare hike, the TTC needs a cash infusion of at least $61 million to avoid deep service cuts next year. Other departments are also coming up short.

Highway tolls, unlikely to be implemented before 2019, offer no relief here. The city manager has provided some solutions, including increases to the land transfer tax, but Tory has yet to endorse a plan that can put out this year’s fire.

Then there’s the issue of the infrastructure Tory’s tolls would fund. Too many projects in the pipeline are the result of bad decision-making.

Let’s start with the plan to rebuild the Gardiner Expressway. A city report released last week revealed the long-term cost of rehabilitating the highway has increased by a billion dollars. The bill for the rebuild of the eastern section –  a plan never endorsed by experts – is up to almost $1.5 billion.

And that isn’t the only dubious mega-project in the works. There’s also the one-stop Scarborough subway, now priced at more than $3 billion and approved under tortuous circumstances. And the mayor’s politically-motivated SmartTrack plan is set to cost at least $2 billion, even as it’s scaled back.

Where possible, Tory should push for a review of these projects to ensure estimates are accurate and the return is worth the cost. Residents are only going to accept tolls as a permanent reality if they can see those tolls working to permanently transform the city for the better.

With the current slate of projects on the books, that’s going to be tough. And that worries me. I believe new revenue is the right thing for Toronto, but let’s be wary of doing the right thing for the wrong reasons.

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