“Mileage tax.”

What’s wrong with those two words, you might be thinking.

Answer: Timing. If you are a politician, this might not be the wisest time to make the introduction of such a tax part of your party platform for a municipal election this fall.

True, a lot of cities have set up a tax for people who drive into their downtown cores during business hours. It’s a way to encourage people to use public transport, and to generate extra loot for the city’s coffers. At least, that’s how it was in the good old days, before the coronavirus pandemic cleared out downtown cores of office workers, closed many businesses and emptied parking lots and garages.

The downtown core of Montreal is hurting. And it may never fully recover from the pandemic. Many businesses have gone bust, and many office workers will continue to work — some of the time or all of the time — from home afterward. Indeed, some companies are already planning for full time remote work after the pandemic and are reducing now-redundant brick and mortar expenses.

Those companies that do insist their office workers return to the workplace five days a week may suddenly find themselves with several job openings as office workers balk at the thought of commuting mornings and evenings when there is really no need to other than to appease some insecure managers. A report on CTV Montreal News today said a recent poll showed 30 percent of office workers will quit if they are forced to return to the workplace full time after the pandemic.

Still, there will be some offices that will force their employees back — and will replace the ones who refuse to return.

Meanwhile, there are a lot of businesses hoping ALL the office workers do return. They want to see full restaurants at lunchtime. They want to see shoppers. They want to see cars lined up in front of parking meters and filling the lots and garages. Ka’ching, ka’ching.

The current Montreal municipal administration wants all of that, too, except not so much the cars. As a self-described “environmentalist” party, they are big on bicycle paths and public transport, as well as eco-friendly projects.

Montreal has never had a mileage tax in place. The idea has been floated before, but nothing ever came of it. Last weekend, it became part of the ruling Projet Montréal party’s platform in the runup to municipal elections in November.

You gotta think a lot of office managers and business owners shook their heads in disbelief when they heard about it. It’s going to be hard enough to coax workers back to office towers; the mileage tax announcement is not going to help matters.

Fortunately, any ruling municipal party in Montreal would have to get permission from the provincial government to impose such a tax, and that may be unlikely to happen anytime soon. Quebec Premier François Legault was an accomplished businessman, founding an airline before he went into politics. Surely he will side with all the business owners and see that this may not be the best time to be thinking of welcoming back office workers who drive in with a special tax. Doh! (Ya gotta laugh.)

I have my doubts about Projet Montréal winning the election — not because of the badly timed mileage tax announcement, but because I sense there is a general dissatisfaction with the party among the population, excluding some trendy, sockless neighbourhoods.

On one hand, it has been “progressive” — another of its self-described qualities — and has made some good contributions to the city with its bicycle paths, eco-friendly projects and the like.

But the latest announcement shows it might be out of touch with the new reality: thanks to remote working, many people are moving from the city to the ‘burbs or beyond into the countryside, and there is plenty of that surrounding Montreal. They are embracing their own brand of environmentalism. Remote working has empowered them, and put more after-tax dollars in their pockets. They don’t need to live and work in smelly, noisy concrete jungles anymore.

A “mileage tax” will only strengthen that conviction. It’s just another reason for office workers who previously drove to work not to return. And for shoppers and entertainment seekers to avoid the downtown core, too.

Maybe the party has considered this. Perhaps they feel the idea of a mileage tax will appease their base and win them some votes. Maybe they are happy to write off office workers and shoppers who drive downtown, figuring they will be replaced by others who will use public transport.

It’s not that a mileage tax is a bad idea. It’s just the timing of the announcement makes the party appear to be oblivious to the post-pandemic challenges ahead.

— Jillian