The dream that Canada’s largest urban hub municipalities, the engines of the national economy, will someday control the levers necessary for the advancement of their economic and social well-being is dying. For the second time in 18 months a provincial government has thwarted the initiative of a major Canadian city to advance its clear and unequivocal interests. The Province of Ontario’s denial of Toronto’s road toll plan follows British Columbia’s imposition of a no-hope plebiscite on the Vancouver region, crushing the bold leadership of almost all its mayors to fund transit expansion.
While the Province maintains that it is simply replacing hoped-for city toll revenue with provincial gas tax sharing, such measures serve to stunt the maturation of Canada’s largest global city.
Twenty years ago, a national urban movement emerged called C5, led by philanthropist Alan Broadbent and Jane Jacobs and involving the mayors of Canada’s five largest cities. It exposed a complex set of challenges facing Canada’s big cities, but none more fundamental than the “inefficient and circuitous permissions and grants from provincial governments and sporadic acts of largesse from the federal government to get necessary money to the cities,” said Jacobs.
In the same era, other progressive developments combined to stoke a sense that Canada, a country constitutionally molded to an agrarian sensibility, was on the brink of an urban renaissance. The Supreme Court of Canada agreed that a suburban municipality of Montréal had the right to impose a pesticide ban despite not having clear legislative authority to do so – ruling that such a ban advanced a clear municipal interest. It was a legal breakthrough that turned on its head the idea that municipalities were nothing more than the narrow authority of powers prescribed by their provincial governments.
In the spirit of this constitutional ruling, two successive Ontario governments strengthened municipal authority by transitioning toward municipal acts that advanced broad spheres of power to allow greater interpretation of the municipal interest. Most significant of these reforms was the City of Toronto Act (2006) which further removed legislative boundaries to maximize public policy innovation and revenue generating opportunities.
These reforms did not address another serious challenge relating to the lack of regional governance coordination of the GTHA’s 30-odd municipalities. But they clearly responded to the overwhelming consensus from the spectrum of business, social, and civil society organizations that for the region’s hub city to thrive it required access to taxing and policy powers available to other global cities. And while Toronto has been curiously timid in adopting such powers (something I touched on in the January 2016 issue of Building), the decision of City Council to pursue road tolls represented a coming of age moment for Canada’s major global city (another topic discussed in the December 2016 issue of Building).
To be fair, the Ontario government has undertaken a range of fiscal initiatives of its own that have benefitted Toronto immensely, including the uploading of social services and historic investments into transit infrastructure. The city has more than recovered from the dire financial straits of provincial downloading from the 1990s. But when our public housing stock is crumbling, critical public transit projects are unfunded, and transit ridership is on the decline, what matter does bean counting make?
Taken in isolation, Premier Wynne’s replacement of locally levied road toll revenues with increased provincial gas tax dividends appears to be a deft political maneuver. A political triple toe-loop as one observer called it. But understood in the context of what the leadership of the Kathleen Wynne government knows is a necessary condition for the GTHA and its hub city to prosper –greater fiscal autonomy –the late-January announcement was a serious blow. Well intended as it may be, such acts of largess are just killing the city with kindness.
Richard Joy is Executive Director of ULI Toronto. Previously, he served as Vice-president, Policy and Government Relations at the Toronto Board of Trade, and was the Director of Municipal Affairs and Ontario (Provincial Affairs) at Global Public Affairs. Follow him on Twitter @RichardJoyTO or email at Richard.Joy@uli.org