09/18/2013 10:10 EDT | Updated 11/18/2013 05:12 EST

Wynne names panel to consult on ways to fund public transit expansion

TORONTO - Ontario voters will know by next spring exactly what taxes or fees the Liberal government intends to implement to raise billions of dollars to expand public transit in the Toronto-Hamilton area, Premier Kathleen Wynne said Wednesday.

The only real way to get people out of their cars is to make public transit a more convenient option than driving, said Wynne.

"This is a culture shift for this region, it's a culture shift for the North American context, that people think not in terms of the automobile, they think about transit," she said. "So we need to make sure that we make the fairest choices possible."

Wynne appointed a panel to examine proposals from Metrolinx, the transit planning agency, including a jump in the HST, a five-cent-a-litre regional gas tax, a $350-million-a-year business parking levy and $100 million a year in development charges.

The 13-member panel, chaired by Ryerson University's Anne Golden, will also consider other options to find an estimated $34 billion to upgrade public transit in the heavily congested region, and report back by December.

"The spring is our target in terms of beginning to implement some of the strategies that we've been talking about, and that's why I’ve asked the panel to work in this short time frame," said Wynne. "But I can't tell you exactly what the strategy will be come the spring."

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford made it clear again Wednesday what he thinks of new taxes or tolls to fund public transit.

"I've always been opposed to revenue tools and I continue to be opposed to revenue tools," said Ford. "People are taxed to death enough, and revenue tools is just a tax."

The Progressive Conservatives criticized the Liberals for appointing a panel to study the recommendations from Metrolinx instead of making decisions about which revenue tools they want to use to raise the transit funding.

"I guess this is another study group, wrapped in a committee, buried in a panel," complained PC Leader Tim Hudak. "When you call 13 political appointees to study this, that's Liberal job creation I guess."

The New Democrats agreed transit expansion has to be funded, but said they would not support it being done on the backs of already over-burdened workers while the government is giving tax breaks to big corporations.

"I don't believe that the government's plans to dig into the pockets of everyday families who are already feeling the pinch is going to be a successful strategy," said NDP Leader Andrea Horwath. "The only way transit is going to get built is if it's paid for in a fair and balanced way."

Wynne dismissed suggestions she would use the new panel as political cover for whatever fees or taxes it recommends to fund transit expansion, which are sure to be unpopular with many voters.

"I'm confident that I will be taking responsibility in the public eye for these decisions," she said. "This is not about shifting responsibility ... but I want to make sure that we make the right choices, that we have enough public engagement."

Government studies show people in the greater Toronto-Hamilton area spend an average of 82 minutes a day commuting, and forecast that will jump to 109 minutes a day by 2031 if nothing is done.

Metrolinx said a one per cent jump in the HST would generate $1.3 billion a year for the transit projects, but the federal government has told Ontario any changes in the sales tax must be done province-wide, not on a regional basis. Wynne has already ruled out the idea of increasing property taxes to fund the transit expansion.

The new transit panel also includes representatives from unions, property developers, home builders, the Canadian Automobile Association and two so-called citizen members, Mohan Nadarajah of Hamilton and Kulvir Gill of Brampton.