Government budgets must be understood incrementally. Well over 90 percent of last year’s spending will be repeated this year. The thing to look for is changes at the margin, because they reflect shifting government priorities. This is especially true for an election budget such as this.
The budget’s title – Ontario’s Plan to Build – and cover graphic of Highway 407 in Toronto signify the importance of infrastructure in general and highways in particular in the Ford Government’s election platform.
The automobile plays an enormous role in the budget, as follows:
- $25 billion over 10 years in capital spending for highway projects including Highway 413 and the Bradford Bypass,
- Retroactively eliminating automobile licence plate renewal fees, which cost $1.8 billion in the 2021-22 fiscal year and will reduce revenue by $1 billion each following year,
- Reducing the gasoline and fuel taxes by over 5 cents per litre for the second half of 2022,
- Removing tolls on Highways 412 and 418, two roads linking Highway 401 to the Highway 407 toll road, and
- Subsidizing auto manufacturers building electric batteries and electric and hybrid vehicles in Ontario.
There is a Choice
The Ford Government has embraced the philosophy that the answer to congestion, to which it applies the hyperbole of gridlock, is to build more capacity. The well-known problem with that philosophy is that new capacity soon becomes congested again.
The Ford Government is striving mightily to lower the cost of driving, which will lead to – guess what – more driving. Its removal of tolls on Highways 412 and 418 make clear that it has rejected the use of road pricing. This is unfortunate, because road pricing could pay for much of the $25 billion capital cost of highways, instead of borrowing the money and paying interest on it.
With the budget’s enthusiasm for the automobile, there is little mention of the environment. No consideration is given to the environmental impact of all the planning highway expansion, nor is there any discussion of remediating it. The two main environmental projects in the budget are the construction of a $24 million facility to recycle phosphorous in Holland Marsh and the creation of a new provincial park, at a location to be announced later. While both are useful, they are relatively small potatoes.
Ford’s Polarizing Vision
The Ford Government is going into the election trying to sell a polarizing vision, in which the two alternatives presented by Finance Minister Bethlenfalvy are “getting things done” by “putting shovels in the ground” and “shutting down any and all building in the province.”
It is possible to oppose Ford’s simple-minded auto-dominated program with a vision that doesn’t build unnecessary highways like the 413, that creates incentives to reduce driving, and that improves environmental stewardship. That’s the vision I hope Ford’s opponents will enunciate in the election campaign.