Ontario removed highway tolls ahead of election despite previously opting to wait

Ontario Premier Doug Ford makes an announcement about building transit and highways, during an election campaign event in Bowmanville, Ont., Friday, May 6, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Aaron Vincent Elkaim

As far back as 2018, Ontario’s Progressive Conservative government faced internal caucus pressure to scrap tolls on 400-series highways in the eastern portion of the GTA.

The idea, however, was immediately rejected because the province wanted to balance the budget before giving up a cent of revenue.

Four years later, as the Ford government prepared to face voters, officials decided to scrap that fiscally prudent approach and instead offered drivers a pre-election goodie.

The decision resulted in the Progressive Conservative government removing tolls on two Durham region highways — 412 and 418 — and in the process, eliminating more than half-a-billion dollars in revenue.

“At a time when Ontario drivers, families and businesses needed it most, our government acted quickly to deliver meaningful financial relief, by eliminating tolls on highways 412 and 418,” a spokesperson for the Ministry of Transport said in a statement.

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Two briefing notes obtained by Global News through a freedom of information request show then-transportation minister John Yakabuski, and then-treasury board president Peter Bethlenfalvy discussed the removal of tolls on Oct. 22, 2018, along with two Durham Region Progressive Conservative MPPs.

But cutting drivers a break — the ministers were informed by ministry staff — would also shave more than $665-million from the provincial budget over the next 30 years.

“The province uses toll revenue to fund important initiatives such as transit and other government priorities,” one line in the Ministry of Transport briefing documents said.

While the yearly amount — roughly $22 million in revenue — would be considered a drop in the multi-billion dollar provincial budget, it was also deemed too much to give up at a time when the premier was warning taxpayers that a $15-billion deficit left Ontario in a precarious financial position.

According to the provincial documents, “the then-Minister committed to revisiting tolls once the budget was balanced.”

But as the Progressive Conservatives geared up to fight for a second consecutive mandate in June’s election, the province had a change of heart. In April, the province proclaimed it would be removing the “unfair tolls” from Highways 412 and 418.

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Ontario removes tolls from Highways 412 and 418

The decision — announced by Ontario Premier Doug Ford — was made as part of a flurry of cost-of-living pledges the PC government made before the writ dropped, including a $1.1-billion-per-year promise to scrap the cost of license sticker renewal fees.

That same month, Bethlenfalvy, now Ontario’s financial minister, tabled a provincial budget that projected a $13-billion deficit by the end of the 2021-22 fiscal year.

In a statement at the time, Bethlenfalvy called the tolls “an unfair burden” imposed on the people of Durham that his government “made right.”

“As part of our plan to keep costs down for hard-working families, drivers can now take highways 412 and 418 for free,” Bethlenfalvy said.

The gamble paid off, helping the PC party holding the majority of seats in Durham region, a key 905-area battleground in provincial elections.

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Months after the pre-election pledge was announced, the province revealed it had balanced the budget and posted a surprise surplus, thanks to unexpectedly high inflation driving up the cost of goods and services, delivering higher tax revenues to the government’s coffers.

The Ford government has not indicated how it plans to replace the $665 million.

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