Friday, January 27, 2017

Wynne's anti-democratic, unprincipled retreat on road tolls shows that in Ontario politics the car is still king

In a staggering display of political cowardice combined with a Mike Harris worthy contempt for local democracy, Premier Kathleen Wynne has reversed her position on allowing road tolls in Toronto as a revenue tool. Now she and her Liberal government will not grant the city of Toronto the authority to impose tolls on the DVP and Gardiner highways despite the fact that the city bears the full costs for the maintenance and operation of them.

This is an outrageous slap in the face to the people of the city, though it is a political calculation that makes a certain amount of sense despite the Liberal stranglehold on seats in Toronto (where the toll plan was popular) as both the NDP and the Conservatives had already positioned themselves as in opposition to the toll plan.

In one of the more egregious moments in her fundamentally misguided campaign to pander to right wing populist narratives ONDP leader Andrea Horwath had aligned herself with the Conservatives and Patrick Brown on the issue and had backed his motion in opposition to the city's plan despite the fact that doing so aided and played into nonsensical anti-tax platitudes that are entirely reactionary.

But the ONDP having already alienated many Toronto progressives on the issue left the door wide open for Wynne to do the same so as to try to appease the 905 vote while knowing that the Toronto pro-toll voters have nowhere to turn.

To be sure there were many legitimate reasons to be critical of John Tory's toll plan but this is not what led Wynne to her decision. Rather we see here again the incredible political power of the cult of the car and car driving and the deep-seated fear that politicians have in  taking even the most minor steps to confront North America's utterly unsustainable car culture.

On full display as well is the cynicism of 905 politicians like  Oshawa Mayor John Henry who celebrated this overruling and undermining of civic democracy calling the unilateral cancellation of the plan by the province "great news" for his constituents who drive into Toronto who will now get to continue to freeload using very expensive infrastructure that they do not have to pay for in anyway.

In our politics the car remains king and all of the most ludicrous reactionary nonsense, much of which flies in the face of reality is trotted out to defend this -- including by many people on the left.

Year after year after year tolls on transit users (which is what transit fares are) increase -- the people who can least afford such increases statistically by far -- while the right of the well-to-do and middle class to drive wherever they want, whenever they want, by themselves if they want is massively subsidized by the government on every level imaginable.

Few people realize the extent to which car usage depends on direct government intervention. This is true in terms of the subsidies to the fossil fuel industry (subsidies that even the IMF found were harmful to those living in poverty) but also in other dramatic ways as well such as the allocation of public space.

Yves Engler wrote of this is "Private Cars, Socialized Costs":

When are capitalists in favour of public ownership? When it earns them a profit. Nowhere can this be seen more clearly than when looking at car companies.
As auto interests have pocketed stupendous profits over the past century they’ve also pushed to socialize huge amounts of urban land. While this may contradict textbook economics, capitalists often prioritize socialized costs/privatized profits over “free markets”....
...Cars are produced for profit, owned by private individuals, but are completely dependent upon public roads. It is even hard to conceive of a large-scale privately owned road network. While there are a good number of toll highways financed and operated by private corporations, it is almost impossible to envision an entire city road system — let alone that of a province or nation — financed and operated privately. Simply put, cars need roads and the state must pay for them; otherwise most of us would still be riding public transit because an unsubsidized private automobile would be too expensive and too inefficient.
But even the suggestion that car drivers should pay an amount that would have been 1/3 less than a one way trip fare on the TTC to use Toronto's highways is shot down as too politically risky.

Again we see that it is impossible to get people in North America -- who are through their patterns of behavior, privilege and consumption literally destroying the planet -- to endure even the slightest increased cost or inconvenience to try to move people out of their vehicles or to at least help to lessen the extent to which we all collectively finance the private individual's ability to drive at will.

This is true even though anyone who claims they believe in the very alarming facts of climate science and climate change must know that the levels and types of car usage that exist now are not environmentally, economically and morally sustainable.

Not even in the short term.

Given the opposition of many progressives to expanding the oil sands or to the reckless building of oil pipelines one has to ask, if they oppose things like tolls, what, exactly, do they think all those oil sands and pipelines are there for? Car culture is not an abstraction. Its impact is devastating and very real.

Thanks in part to a coalition of New Democrats and Conservatives it is clear that not only is Tory's halfhearted plan off the table but so would be any serious plan to use tolls and other methods, such as enforced car pooling or ending subsidies to fossil fuels, to create significant disincentives to driving and to generate revenue to put into public transit while doing so.

Wynne's running roughshod over the right of Toronto's democratically elected city council to implement tolls to pay costs that Toronto is solely on the hook for shows just how central the mythology of the automobile is in our broader political discourse and just how far away we are, with timing rapidly running out, from taking the real steps that would be needed to curb car culture and to at least help to try to mitigate impending climate catastrophe.

Further Reading:

When it comes to the need to confront car culture head on I have written previously and in more depth of this in the past in these articles (among others):

It is time for a war on the car

What is with all the Ontario left ranting about road tolls and Toronto 'elites'?

The threat of climate change is immediate and real -- Ending 'car culture' is a key part of combating it

I also cannot speak highly enough of Yves Engler's four part series The Great Toronto Toll Debate. This series begins with On Toronto Tolls, Marxists Align with Auto Industrial Complex and ends with Suburban Sprawl: An Enemy of the Left.

1 comment:

  1. The "War on the Car"?? This decision is pure electoral politics and only slightly about the car (and trucks?).
    Wynne's popularity is so low she is looking ahead to the election in 2018 and needs the 905 voters/seats. She doesn't want or need another reason (think here e.g.of electricity rates)for 905 voters to vote PC.