Honk if you pre­fer taxes to tolls

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - OPINION - Heather Mallick Heather Mallick is a na­tional af­fairs colum­nist for Torstar Syn­di­ca­tion Ser­vices

So you're sail­ing down­town in a high-oc­cu­pancy ve­hi­cle lane (HOV) with a pile of fam­ily and friends in your car and life is good. The Pan Am Games have pro­vided an un­ex­pected bonus for the mar­ried and pop­u­lar.

On­tario Premier Kath­leen Wynne says that af­ter the Games, she wants to charge for these lanes on var­i­ous main roads. Her plan hasn't been an­nounced. But they could be­come high-oc­cu­pancy toll (HOT) lanes, mean­ing that you'll drive free if you have one or two pas­sen­gers, but if you're alone, un­con­ge­nial, and pay a toll, you can take the fast high-oc­cu­pancy-toll (HORT) lane.

She says she had al­ways planned this, which is true, but it was a harsh way to in­tro­duce the con­cept. Driv­ers thought HOVs were the thin end of the wedge. And so it proved.

HOVs were an en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly way to get peo­ple around the city, three peo­ple in one car rather than three peo­ple in three cars. But the in­tent of the Pan Am HOVs was sim­ply to get ath­letes and posh peo­ple in and out of the Games with­out em­bar­rass­ing traf­fic jams.

In the fu­ture, on some roads, HORT lanes would be open to peo­ple who can af­ford to spend money on mi­nor com­forts. What was in­tended as an op­tion for en­vi­ron­men­tally aware car­pool­ers and buses will be candy for the wealthy. It seems un­fair.

I do un­der­stand the con­cept of pay­ing for an open lane. The great thing about money is not grandeur but the way it en­ables the shrug­ging off of mi­nor an­noy­ances. You can walk out of a bad movie with­out re­gret­ting hav­ing bought the ticket. Some­one smashes your base­ment win­dow. "Fine, be that way," you say, and call a glazier. It is pleas­ant.

But it's no way to run a city. Wynne says this will help pay for a decade-long $130-bil­lion plan to im­prove public transit and traf­fic in south­ern On­tario. But Wynne should raise money for that by rais­ing in­come taxes, which don't pe­nal­ize the poor.

If only she had the courage. The Con­ser­va­tives, both na­tional and pro­vin­cial, and un­pleas­ant Amer­i­can in­flu­ence have led many of us to see "tax and spend" as a slur. It is not. When taxes go up for most of us, we all see an im­prove­ment in liv­ing stan­dards. Ev­ery lane on the road would be trav­elled at the same speed, a sen­si­ble one.

Tax­a­tion helps us all. We are un­der­taxed, and yet we won­der why our city is dirty, our streets are rub­ble and chil­dren have mould in their trailer-park class­rooms. If Wynne had the courage to raise taxes, she wouldn't have to hu­mil­i­ate us with a fast lane for the wealthy and a slow lane for the hum­ble who have to think very hard about ex­penses that the rich would dis­miss and the mid­dle class re­gard as mi­nor.

It's ex­pen­sive to set up a toll lane sys­tem, as Cal­i­for­ni­ans (a peo­ple who have lac­er­ated them­selves by vot­ing against higher taxes) have learned. You might need wider roads, toll booths, train­ing, transpon­ders in ev­ery car, and po­lice paid to study each ve­hi­cle the way they are now paid, off-hours, to study holes in the road at con­struc­tion sites.

The roads are owned by the public and used by the public. The taxes of low- and mid­dle-in­come peo­ple helped build ev­ery lane. To make ma­jor roads fee-for-ser­vice is un­fair and coun­ter­pro­duc­tive, like let­ting the rich jump the queue for surgery.

What you will see is un­fair­ness in ac­tion: pri­vate af­flu­ence in the fast empty left lane and public squalor in the slow re­main­der lanes, where peo­ple take longer to get to low-paid jobs, where chil­dren don't get to school on time, where par­ents pay big penal­ties when they are late for day­care pickup.

Here's an anal­ogy: when you find an anthill in your drive­way, you can stomp it with your boot. Many ants die, the hill must be re­built and you have a few ant-free days. But it doesn't solve the prob­lem. That re­quires thought and plan­ning (and ju­di­ciously poured streams of boiling wa­ter).

The best way to keep our air clean is to take public transit. Our sub­ways, street­cars and buses are few and of­ten filthy. A tax hike would give us a transit fes­ti­val all across this city and re­gion. It's not Wynne's fault that we are re­luc­tant to pay for it but I do think she should try to per­suade us.

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