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What Ontario’s budget means for Toronto: Goodbye gas tax revenue hike, hello circus at Ontario Place

A circus at Ontario Place.

Legal drinking in Trinity Bellwoods Park.

Subways, subways, subways.

That’s a possible vision for Toronto’s future, according to the 2019 provincial budget — the first for Premier Doug Ford’s government.

Left out? A planned hike to the municipal portion of the gas tax revenue, which Mayor John Tory expected would bring roughly $1 billion into city coffers over the next decade.

“We had budgeted … for much of that committed increase to go towards the state of good repair for the TTC,” Tory said on Thursday night, just hours after the budget was unveiled at Queen’s Park.

The revenue source was expected to bring in $24 million this year alone to help maintain buses and streetcars, Tory added.

Back in 2017, the former Liberal government first announced a doubling of municipalities’ share of gas tax revenue — an apparent consolation prize to Toronto after former premier Kathleen Wynne quashed Tory’s request for road tolls on its highways.

The two cents per litre on all the gas taxed under the provincial fuel tax to help fund their public transit networks was set to increase to four cents per litre by 2021.

Killing the hike now was a surprise move from the PCs — and it breaks a campaign promise.

In May 2018, a spokesperson for the Ford campaign told CBC Toronto that municipalities would see no decrease in the money flow and that a PC government would honour the planned increase put in place by the Liberals.

“It is, frankly, a broken commitment that was made and repeated and committed to during the election campaign,” Tory said. “And we make our plans based on those commitments. It’s very, very disappointing.”

Over the next few months, “the government will consult with municipalities to review the program parameters and identify opportunities for improvement,” according to the province’s budget.

In the meantime, it’s just one of several areas of concern for Tory and other city officials.

Little clarity on province’s housing plans

On the housing front, as the city grapples with a shortage of affordable and supportive housing, the province’s budget offers little insight into the Ford government’s in-the-works housing plans.

One of the upcoming strategies is a Housing Supply Action Plan, which will make it easier to develop rental housing, according to Finance Minister Vic Fedeli.

Legislation is coming this spring, but until then, provincial officials are being tight-lipped about what’s in it for Toronto and other municipalities.

A Community Housing Renewal Strategy to help provide more affordable housing is also teased in the budget, but with no dollar figure attached — just that it will create incentives for community housing providers, simplify rent-geared-to-income calculators, and streamline wait-list and eligibility rules.

But, as it stands, there are “absolutely zero dollars” for new supportive housing units in the budget, said Coun. Joe Cressy.

“And in the city of Toronto alone, we have a waiting list of 15,000 people and growing.”

For Tory, the lack of concrete detail is also a source of concern.

“They need to make up for lost time during the course of 2019,” he said, adding he hopes the province will directly address affordable and supportive housing, and repairs for Toronto Community Housing.

His remarks followed a recent $1.3 billion funding injection from the federal government to fix up nearly 60,000 of the city’s crumbling social housing units — a direct transfer to the city, without provincial involvement.

Booze in parks, a circus at Ontario Place

What’s far more clear than the province’s housing strategy is a variety of changes to alcohol policies with a direct impact on Toronto.

The province says changes could be in place by this summer, from the creation of a tailgating permit for sporting events to legislation allowing municipalities to allow drinking in public spaces like parks.

That means cracking a beer could one day be legal in the parking lot outside BMO Field if there’s a Toronto FC or Argos game, or — if city council gives the green light — in Trinity Bellwoods or Riverdale Park.

The province also intends to start alcohol sales at bars and restaurants. at 9 a.m. every day — a little win for council, following Coun. Paula Fletcher’s recently-approved motion calling on the province to put the “mimosa back in brunch.”

Another big focus? Transforming Ontario Place from a mostly-shuttered site to a “world-class, year-round” destination.

Revitalizing Ontario Place is one of the province’s areas of focus in this year’s budget, but Coun. Joe Cressy says the city needs to be at the table too.

It’s one of the stops listed on the new Ontario Line, a subway route proposed as part of a nearly $30 billion transit expansion plan, with a roughly $11 billion funding commitment from the province, that was unveiled on Wednesday.

This spring, the Ford government will also begin accepting design ideas from outside partners, but in the meantime, they’re partnering with Cirque du Soleil — with 80 to 90 shows expected for this fall.

The goal is helping people reconnect with the “iconic” property, according to budget documents.

But since Toronto owns part of the land, Cressy said the city needs to be at the table with the province when it comes to redesigning the space.

“If they decide to continue going on their own toward some mega-mall or casino construct, it’s simply not going to happen and it’s dead in its tracks,” he said.

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