City gets a new deal
Chow welcomes ‘historic’ pact with province to ease Toronto’s budget crisis
BEN SPURR CITY HALL BUREAU ROBERT BENZIE QUEEN’S PARK BUREAU CHIEF
It’s a new deal.
Premier Doug Ford is uploading responsibility for the Gardiner Expressway and Don Valley Parkway to the provincial government as part of a “historic” accord that will deliver at least $9 billion to Toronto in exchange for Mayor Olivia Chow acquiescing to his controversial Ontario Place redevelopment.
The premier and mayor announced details of the agreement Monday at Queen’s Park, vowing it would put the cash-strapped city on the path to financial stability.
But, while the pact marks a major shift in city-provincial responsibilities and will provide much-needed relief for Toronto, the $1.2 billion Ontario has pledged in operating supports over the next three years isn’t enough to fill the projected $1.5-billion spending gap the city is facing in 2024, and it falls short of the new, permanent revenue
stream city officials have said the municipality needs.
The deal — reached after 10 weeks of fast-moving negotiations under a city-provincial working group — required major concessions from both leaders.
Ford had previously shot down requests to take over the costly highways, while Chow vowed during her election campaign to fight the province’s plan for a private spa at Ontario Place.
“Everyone’s half-happy — you know you have a good deal when both sides aren’t too happy,” the premier said.
“(If) anyone thinks I want the DVP and the Gardiner, I don’t,” said Ford, a former city councillor who described the highways as “an 800pound gorilla on your back” for the municipality.
The premier thanked Chow for co-operating on the deal, and added it was “amazing to see what we can accomplish when we work together, when we put our differences aside and focus on what unites us.”
Chow has spoken passionately about her desire to preserve Ontario Place, but said Monday the city does “not have the authority” to block the province’s designs for a spa and relocated Ontario Science Centre on the site.
“It has been my position that I believe that Ontario Place should be a park, but it is called Ontario Place,” said the mayor, repeating one of Ford’s lines about the land being provincially owned.
Chow said that, as a result of the province’s new commitments, “the city will be able to spend millions more on affordable housing, fixing transit and building communities,” and offer hope to residents who are struggling.
“Thousands of affordable units can be built by redirecting funds that would otherwise be spent on repairing an aging highway,” she said.
“This deal is historic. It is huge.” In addition to dropping the opposition to Ontario Place plans, as part of the agreement, the city has committed to meeting or exceeding the Ford government’s housing targets, and advancing transit construction and other provincial priorities.
Queen’s Park will provide Toronto up to $7.6 billion in capital relief by uploading the expressways, providing performance-based housing funding and committing $758 million for 55 new subway trains to replace the TTC’s Line 2 fleet. The subway money is contingent on the city and federal government matching Ontario’s contribution.
Provincial and city officials estimate the highway upload will save Toronto at least $2 billion over a decade, but that could rise to $6.5 billion after further study. During the ownership transition period, Queen’s Park will give the city $7 million in operating funds and $198 million for highway capital costs.
The upload likely spells the end of Chow’s campaign promise to replace the eastern elevated portion of the Gardiner with a ground-level boulevard. Ford told reporters his government “will never toll these highways,” and ruled out adding lanes.
On the operating side, the province’s $1.2-billion commitment includes $330 million in operating funds, starting in 2024-25, for the Eglinton Crosstown LRT and the Finch West LRT.
The deal also provides $300 million for a “transit safety, recovery and sustainable operations” fund, a one-time investment to increase TTC service, on the condition the city deploy more police or security on the system and take other safety measures.
There is also $600 million in additional operating support for “nonrefugee shelter and homelessness prevention,” conditional on the federal government offering more funding for refugee and asylum claimants.
City manager Paul Johnson said the expressways are the single largest capital expense on Toronto’s books, and the upload will have a “dramatic impact” on the city budget.
“That alone allows us to redirect those capital (expenditures) to other things that we’ve been unable to fund for years,” he said.
But Johnson acknowledged the province providing three years of funding for transit and shelters isn’t a fix for Toronto’s structural operating deficit. City officials have long argued the revenue tools Toronto has at its disposal don’t raise enough to pay for the services required of a major metropolis, and new permanent revenue sources, like a city sales tax, are essential for its future prosperity. The working group’s terms of reference prohibited it from proposing any new taxes or service cuts.
Still, Johnson asserted that the city being able to rely on the provincial funding for the next three years will give it vital breathing room, and the two sides have committed to continuing discussions on longer-term solutions.
“Is this a forever change in the operating side? No,” he said.
“We can now plan multi-year budgets at the city of Toronto across the next three years. That’s huge,” he added.
The city and Queen’s Park are hoping Monday’s announcement will soon be followed by commitments from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government, which belatedly joined the working group talks last month. They issued a joint call for Ottawa to help Canada’s biggest city by providing $2.7 billion in additional support for the Line 2 subway, shelter infrastructure and other projects.
In Ottawa, an aide to Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland was noncommittal.
“We welcome the province of Ontario stepping up its support for the city of Toronto. Our government has and will continue to be a strong partner for the people of Toronto, on housing, public transit and much more,” said Katherine Cuplinskas.
At Queen’s Park, NDP Leader Marit Stiles hailed the mayor for making a deal.
“What Olivia Chow managed to do was, she was being robbed and she got the thief to pay up,” said Stiles, applauding the deal despite the mayor’s Ontario Place concession.
“The fight to prevent this, to stop this, was always here at Queen’s Park. It’s up to us to continue that fight here and that’s what we’re going to do,” she said.
Coun. Brad Bradford, a vocal critic of the mayor, called the agreement “good news for the people of Toronto.”
“Our city needs to focus on the most important problems ahead of us: building more housing, unlocking gridlock and achieving fiscal sustainability. I am relieved that common-sense solutions prevailed,” he said.
Toronto Star Newspapers Limited