Honk if you prefer taxes to tolls
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.