POLITICS
04/26/2013 11:53 EDT | Updated 06/26/2013 05:12 EDT

Wynne promises $100M to build roads and bridges in rural, northern Ontario

BARRIE, Ont. - There will be a $100-million fund to build roads and bridges in rural and northern Ontario in next weeks' provincial budget, Premier Kathleen Wynne announced Friday.

The infrastructure funding for 2013-14 will recognize the unique needs of the smaller and more remote communities, and support local construction jobs, Wynne said as she visited the site of a service centre under construction beside Highway 400.

"What I have heard repeatedly is that we need this fund and we need it to be predictable and we need it to be ongoing, so we're proposing $100 million at this point and then work towards a permanent fund in an ongoing way," she said.

With the budget coming next Thursday, Wynne travelled to Barrie to announce that the fund would be "the first step" in a comprehensive transportation plan for rural and northern Ontario, but couldn't say if Barrie would qualify for any of the money.

The Liberals "will be working with municipalities across the province to make sure we get the formula right because obviously there is a lot of need," said Wynne.

The opposition parties agreed more money for rural and northern communities would be welcome, as long as it's new money, but both criticized the premier for making the announcement in a city just 100 kilometres north of Toronto.

"It just shows that the Liberal Party of Toronto doesn't have a grasp on what's rural and what's northern, and Barrie is neither," said Barrie Conservative Rod Jackson.

"If you're going to make an announcement about rural and northern Ontario, it's probably best to go to rural and northern Ontario to do it."

The New Democrats also questioned the location of Wynne's announcement.

"No disrespect to our friends in Barrie, they need the attention of the provincial government as anybody else, but this is the type of announcement that if you're going to make it outside of Queen's Park, at least go to somewhere in northern Ontario," said NDP house leader Gilles Bisson.

More details of the infrastructure fund are expected in the May 2 budget, added Wynne.

"The funds will be made available starting in October of this year...given that all goes well over the next few days," she said in a veiled reference to the vote on the upcoming budget, which will be a matter of confidence.

The minority government needs help from at least one opposition party to pass the budget, which the Conservatives have already vowed to vote against.

That means the NDP must decide if there's enough in the fiscal blueprint that they can vote to keep the Liberals in power, or at the minimum abstain from the budget vote so the Liberals are not defeated.

"We do not believe that an election is necessary, and I don't think anyone in the province wants an unnecessary election," said Wynne.

The New Democrats said they don't want to read next week's budget to find the Liberals are using some sort of new "revenue tool" to pay for the northern infrastructure fund.

"If this is all about revenue tools, a new tax on gas or any other tax, that's not on," warned Bisson.

Wynne didn't say how the northern infrastructure fund would be paid for, other than to insist it was new money.

The premier said she was prepared to fight an election on the need to raise taxes or find some other way to provide a dedicated revenue stream to pay for $2 billion worth of transit improvements in the Toronto area every year for the next 25 years.

She dismissed critics like Toronto Mayor Rob Ford who reject tax hikes and road tolls and insist the transit funding can be found through efficiencies.

"Anybody who's got a better idea, bring it forward," said Wynne, "but for 40 years there has not been the collective will to dedicate the revenue to build the transit that we need."

Both the Conservatives and New Democrats have said they won't support any effort by the Liberal government to raise taxes on people to pay for public transit.