Why Toronto considered turning off its highway lights in 1996

For drivers on some of Toronto’s busy highways, it looked as if their car headlights would have to be enough to keep their route illuminated.

That’s because city council had its eye on the overhead highway lights that had also been lighting the route.

“Now to save money, the biggest city in the country is considering turning them off,” said Peter Mansbridge, host of CBC’s The National, explained on Jan. 30, 1996.

Mansbridge said it was a way the city could deal with its “budget shortfall.”

‘Catastrophically stupid decision’

“Bad idea,” said a driver interviewed in his car. “There’s enough accidents as it is already.” (The National/CBC Archives)

An estimated 300,000 drivers used Toronto’s three expressways every day, said reporter Havard Gould.

“It’s no sense,” said one of them, interviewed in her car. “Human safety comes first.”

Gould noted that the “regional government” in charge of the pre-amalgamation Metro Toronto was “trying to balance the budget.”

On- and off-ramps would still be lit up, but the highways themselves would not, for a savings of $400,000 a year.

For Coun. Joe Pantalone, it came down to what the city’s priorities should be if cuts were to be realized.

“Metro council will be making the decision, if it approves this, it will simply say that children’s and services to seniors are more important than having lights on a highway,” he said. 

According to the Globe and Mail on Feb. 1, 1996, the council was contemplating $88 million in budget cuts to “avoid a tax increase.”

Hard choices

Toronto mayor Barbara Hall listens to the discussion by Torobto’s city council about whether to make up a budget shortfall by not turning on streetlights on city expressways. (The National/CBC Archives)

Pantalone’s colleague, Coun. Brian Ashton called any plan to pull the plug “a catastrophically stupid decision.”

“People are going to get hurt,” he said, while driving. “It’s going to be unsafe, and potentially we’re going to get sued right down to our shoes.”

The Globe and Mail reported that the city’s fleet of “chauffeured limousines” was not on the chopping block, but 3,580 daycare spaces were facing elimination.

In March 1996, the newspaper reported that council had approved a budget that kept the highway lights on but laid off about 300 workers, among other cuts.

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