As many urban Ontarians and Manitobans head to the polls, they will have many promises to weigh when casting their ballot. But the last thought running through the heads of many will be what a hassle it was to get to the polling station. Many will no doubt rack their brain at the last moment trying to recall the various parties transportation policy promises. Some might ask a more astute question: which box do I check to make sure that the infrastructure projects we voted for in the last civic election get funded.
Toronto and Winnipeg each dominate their province politically and economically. Yet neither municipal government has the tools to finance the infrastructure they will require to compete in the global economy. Torontonians have the worst commute times of any city in the developed world. The average commute time is 80 minutes per day, and is forcasted to reach 109 minutes by 2031. Traffic congestion currently costs the city's economy over $6 billion, and could rise to as much as $15 billion within the next 20 years.
Winnipeg's infrastructure challenge isn't on the same scale as Toronto's, but the need for infrastructure funding is far more obvious to the naked eye. Many Winnipeg streets are littered with potholes. Downtown sidewalks are cracked, and in many cases inaccessible to people using wheelchairs or walkers. Less obvious, but more ominous problems are bridges on the verge of collapse, and 100-year old water pipes overdue for replacement. A City of Winnipeg report claims that the city has a $3.8 billion infrastructure deficit. That is a clear signal that the current arrangement between the city and the province isn't working..
While governing parties in the two provinces have committed to spend large sums of money on infrastructure, no party has addressed the structural problem of the staggering $123 billion national infrastructure deficit: municipalities lack the revenue generating tools they need to finance adequate infrastructure. Cities typically have two options: pay for infrastructure from property taxes or beg for money from upper levels of government. To his credit, Premier McGuinty did grant some very specific additional taxing powers to Toronto, but they were very specific and politically divisive. The new administration at city hall is now busy rolling them back. One other way in which cities can come to pay for the infrastructure they need is if the provinces let them raise their own revenue however they choose.
Granting additional taxing power to cities would certainly be met with opposition. After all, no one likes paying taxes. But eliminating the dependency of municipal governments on exclusive provincial funding would allow provinces to cut taxes to offset the difference. One might reasonably ask what the point of this approach would be if not simply to raise taxes. The answer is twofold.
First, having two (or three) levels of government involved in local infrastructure is inefficient. It requires multiple sets of bureaucrats to administer and also requires consensus from all levels of government. Politicizing infrastructure spending can lead to even worse inefficiency. Winnipeg’s inability to strike a deal with the province to fund its nascent rapid transit system, and the very existence of the Sheppard subway line (and non-existence of an Eglinton line) in Toronto are pretty dramatic examples.
Second, municipal governments are better placed to make decisions on local issues, and can more easily be held accountable for those decisions. If municipal politicians think that an infrastructure project is sufficiently important, they should feel comfortable enough to go directly to the voters and state the case for funding the project. Since local taxes would apply, voters would see a more direct link between their tax dollars and the infrastructure they receive. When two or three levels of government are involved, each can plausibly blame the others for dropping the ball. That leads to an almost complete lack of accountability over infrastructure spending.
Rather than promising band aid solutions to fixing gridlock and crumbling infrastructure, provincial governments need to empower the level of government closest to citizens to deal with these issues. Most people think of municipal government as the level of government that shovels the sidewalks and fixes the roads—as it should be. But it also needs to be the level of government that charges for these services.