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Executive Committee gets a toll awakening

Toronto’s city councillors got a rude awakening at Thursday’s lengthy Executive Committee meeting. City staff gave a presentation on revenue tolls, saying that it is necessary that council approve at least a few of their reforms — increase property taxes, sales taxes, vehicle tax, or user fees like tolls and public transportation fares. If they didn’t, well, they would have to find more cuts.

Toronto currently has $33 billion worth of unfunded projects. As city manager Peter Wallace said during his presentation, if executive council or city council decides not to approve the use of tolls or increase property taxes, then they better be ready to propose reductions in the capital spending.

“Toronto, a $12 billion enterprise, does require a long term, vigorous, and consistent framework,” he said. “Cutting costs on an annual basis doesn’t work long-term. Toronto needs a long-term investment and revenue strategy.”

Wallace spoke candidly about the need to choose, and implement, a revenue plan. If city council is not willing to increase taxes, then tolls are the only option.

Mayor John Tory announced last week that he would be supporting the implementation of tolls as a source of revenue for infrastructure and transit-related projects. His proposal: a $2 flat-rate toll on the Don Valley Parkway and the Gardiner Expressway. With this toll, the city would accumulate approximately $166 million in extra revenue. If the rate were to increase to $3.90, comparable to the cost of a transit fare, the city would make $272 million.

“If you want to live in a city in five or 10 years that is so much worse for congestion, then we shouldn’t have this discussion,” Tory said at a press conference prior to the vote. “But I’m not prepared to be that kind of mayor and when most people think about it, they know we need to build the transit and they know it isn’t free.”

“If anyone is opposed to road tolls, they have an obligation to tell us what they would do instead.”

There seemed to be a lot of differing opinions, but at the end of the day, the executive council saw the light and voted to send the toll proposal to city council for further consideration. The fees/cost of toll implementation will be decided at that point. Executive Committee also voted to ask the province for permission to impose a hotel and short-term accommodation rental tax and an alcohol tax. Council is still adamant not to increase property taxes by more than half a percent.

Tolling Toronto’s major roadways has a lot of benefits, and as was proven by the Mainstreet Research poll conducted last week, most of Toronto’s residents are comfortable paying a fee to use the DVP and Gardiner. The hope is that tolls will not only collect the much-needed revenue to build more transit, but it will also alleviate congestion and gridlock by encouraging car pooling and transit usage.

At the same time, the revenue tool discussion is always a hard one to have. An election is forthcoming, and no city councillor, not to mention mayoral candidate, wants to be the person to say “hey, we are raising taxes and we are making you pay to drive to work.” Toronto’s current mayor seems to have put the politics of re-election aside and was brave enough to push forward a proposal that may not be all that popular among his fellow councillors. And for that, Women’s Post commends him.

All I can say is that I hope the rest of council realizes that Toronto is in a pickle. The city needs money and it needs to build transit and infrastructure. The reality is that you can’t do one without the other.

TTC hikes fares by 10 cents, needs investment from city

Last night, the TTC board approved a 10-cent fare increase for tokens, reducing their shortfall for next year’s budget to about $61 million. As Toronto Transit Commission CEO, Andy Byford, emphasized during his presentation, the board had very few choices. A fare increase was an inevitable and unfortunate necessity.

Cash fares will remain the same, but the cost of a token or a PRESTO single ride will increase to $3. A monthly Metropass will go up to $146.25 for adults and $116.75 for post-secondary students. Cash and ticket prices for seniors and students will also increase by 10 cents.

The change will be effective as of January 2017, although the board did pass a second motion saying they will recommend freezing fares in 2018.

The TTC will now have to turn the budget over to the city budget committee, who will then decide whether to approve the budget with the 2017 shortfall. The fare increase will result in an extra $27 million for the transit agency. That, in combination with a number of efficiency cuts, has already lowered the shortfall from $230 million to $61 million. By approving the budget Monday, the TTC board is saying there is no other way to cut the budget. They have done everything they can without increasing fares by an even more substantial amount or without cutting services.

The TTC receives a very small subsidy compared to other North American cities — 90 cents per rider. Vancouver’s subsidy is $1.89 per rider and Calgary is $1.69. York Region, whose transit network is much smaller, has a subsidy of $4.56. Without more funding, there is absolutely nothing the TTC can do but increase fares.

As much as city council is against raising property taxes, it was clear that concerned transit users are fine with it. Most wanted all residents to contribute, whether it was through tolls or property tax, so that seniors and low-income families don’t have to walk across the city to get to work because they can’t afford public transportation. Raising property taxes was actually a suggestion given to the board by a Toronto resident.

Byford has done all he can do in terms of finding efficiencies, cutting the budget by another 2.6 per cent for the second year in a row. During a time where the TTC is working with the city to build more transit and improve service, this is not a time for cuts.

Now, it’s the city’s turn to take this budget and commit to investing in public transportation. Residents have said they are willing to contribute through taxes, and there are other forms of revenue such as tolls that can be used to help decrease the shortfall, so let’s run with it! It’s time to seriously invest in transportation, especially if Toronto has any hope of completing our integrated transit network.

City council approves transit network plan

As a reporter, I love covering City Hall. But, sometimes it can get frustrating — for example, when it takes nine hours of discussion before a decision can be made surrounding a transit plan that has been on the table for over a year.

City Council voted Tuesday to go forward with the “motherlode” Transit Network Plan and approve a deal made with the province that will see them contribute approximately $11 billion towards transit. This includes $3.7 billion for Regional Express Rail (RER) and $7.84 billion for Light Rail Transit (LRT).

The problem? The city was not prepared to carry their weight of SmartTrack. This agreement would see the city contribute $3 billion of their own funding towards the project (or $2 billion if the federal government pitches in). Toronto will also be responsible for day-to-day-operations and maintenance of the Finch West, Sheppard East, and Eglinton Crosstown LRTs.

Mayor John Tory had to remind council a number of times that the deal with the province really does benefit the city, saying that if the province had meant to pay for everything, they would have had a parade and used it as an election campaign issue.

“The number one thing they want me to do is ease the strangulation that has taken place in this city as a result of traffic congestion and the number one way you can do that is build public transportation,” Tory said to reporters half way through the meeting.

This transit network has been a continuous source of political capital for city councillors, which is why staff divided the funding discussion into two parts in hopes of making the decision easier. During this particular council meeting, councillors were simply voting to approve the negotiations between the province and the city, and committing the city to continue their work. Staff will then return with the exact costs and details of construction for each project.

The second discussion will be about revenue tools — how exactly will Toronto pay for transit? Will they have to raise property taxes? Will they have to find cuts somewhere in the budget? This discussion will happen in December or January and is sure to be just as lengthy, if not more so.

However, this did not stop a number of councillors from using this time to try and amend the motion to squeeze as much as possible out of the province. Staff warned that by delaying the provincial negotiations, it could result in the province completely reneging on the agreement. As City Manager David Wallace pointed out, Toronto needs to make an investment and they need to do it now.

There were a number of councillors who were concerned about making that investment, saying that approving a plan before knowing how the city was going to pay for it was irresponsible. While I can admire their tenacity and commitment to the budget, city staff, as well as the Toronto Transit Commission, have reached an agreement that appears to be quite fair. By continuing to delay the building and construction of necessary transit systems, council will ultimately ruin all the hard work city staff have put into building an integrated transit network to begin with.

The solution seems simple: instead of complaining, be creative and start to come up with ways of creating revenue without raising property taxes to the extreme. I’ve previously suggested the use of tolls, something I firmly believe would help raise the much-needed revenue for transit. Not only would it unlock gridlock on our congested roads, but the money could be earmarked for SmartTrack specifically!

Toronto NEEDS transit, and if at all possible, it would be great if part of it was finished in my lifetime. Let’s stop the bickering and start to think of real solutions to the city’s gridlock problems.

Should Toronto use tolls to maintain transit network?

The City of Toronto has completed the first round of negotiations with the province over funding for the Transit Network. Staff will present their updated financial report to a special executive committee meeting Tuesday afternoon for approval prior to the November city council meeting the following week.

The report outlines the funding model for the various elements of the Transit Network, including the amount of money being provided by the Ontario government. As of Nov. 1, the province has offered $3.7 billion for Regional Express Rail (RER) and $7.84 billion for Light Rail Transit (LRT).

The biggest blow to the transit-funding model is that city council will now be responsible for the day-to-day operations or maintenance of the Finch West, Sheppard East, and Eglinton Crosstown LRTs. These are projects that will be built by the province and Metrolinx; yet, Toronto residents will be on the hook for its maintenance.

Aspects of SmartTrack will be covered under the provincial funding; however, it will not be enough. The federal government has said they will make a contribution — but there has been no firm commitment yet. In the meantime, the city will have to come up with other ways of finding revenue to pay for the project, as well as the maintenance and operations of the network once it is complete. This could mean raising property taxes, something the city has promised not to do.

But, why should Toronto residents pay for all of these transit plans when they benefit the GTHA region in its entirety? Maybe the more economically feasible form of revenue can be found in the use of tolls, something that everyone entering and driving in Toronto can contribute to.

If drivers were asked to pay a toll when using the Don Valley Parkway or the Gardiner Expressway, a lot of these funding problems could be solved. First of all, tolls would encourage more people to use the new transit network, thus freeing up the roads and alleviating the insane gridlock Toronto faces on a daily basis. Second of all, the money collected from these tolls could be funnelled directly into a transit fund — to be used in conjunction with the money collected from fares, ect. — to pay for the daily operations of these projects.

On Tuesday’s meeting, staff will be recommending that city council approve the current funding model and authorize further negotiations and agreements with the province, Metrolinx, and other agencies in order to gain extra funding for SmartTrack.

But, I don’t think Toronto should hold its breath. It’s time to come up with some realistic solutions to the transit-funding problem instead of hoping that other levels of government will bail us out. Embracing tolls is the logical solution — but is there someone brave enough to say it on the council floor?

The city has until Nov. 30 to finalize financial arrangements for SmartTrack to keep the provincial deadline.

City approves $2.4 million Rail Deck Park study

A $2.4 million study for the Rail Deck Park was approved unanimously by city council Wednesday, despite complaints by the suburbs.

The proposal would cover the rail lines between Bathurst St. and Blue Jays Way with an urban park. Toronto Mayor John Tory compared this 21-acre project to that of Chicago’s millennium Park and New York’s Central Park — all big tourist attractions, with the added bonus of making the downtown core more liveable. The preliminary work is estimated to cost a bit over $1 billion.

Councillor’s unanimously approved the motion to study the feasibility of the park; however, they also took the opportunity to complain about the lack of funding in their wards to maintain park space and clean up their neighbourhoods. York West Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti told his colleagues he would only support the project if suburban parks were given the same consideration and investments.

Because of all the concerns from the suburb councillors, an amendment to the original motion was added to a study on the “deficiencies in parks in the suburbs” and a study on funding mechanisms for parks in other wards.

Both studies will be presented to City Council next year, and will include feasibility, costs of obtaining air rights to the site, and details of the platform used to suspend the park over the rails. Staff will also look at funding alternatives.

Toronto is always growing and expanding — and while building condominiums and malls is important, councillors also need to remember to embrace green spaces. The value of having community space available downtown, where most people work and live, is incredibly important. Toronto needs to have a long-term vision and ambitious planning goals to ensure future generations don’t suffer from intense gridlock and pollution. Building an amazing park overtop of a transit hub is exactly what this city needs.

Motion for gender disparity pushed until October at City Council

City Council has promised to address greater gender diversity on the boards of directors of public and private corporations in October.

Councillor Michelle Holland presented a motion to City Council that would see new appointments for women on public boards to start as soon as fall 2016. The motion further directs that all public appointments on boards in Toronto be made up of 50 per cent women by 2019. Unfortunately, the motion was deferred until October because of a heavy agenda at this month’s meeting.

Women in Canada only represent 15.9 per cent of board positions in large corporations and public companies only have 12.1 per cent women. Crown corporations have the highest representation in public office with 30 per cent, but this still falls well below the 50 per cent mark.

This motion is influenced by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s decision to have 50 per cent representation in his federal cabinet, which has arguably renewed the work equality debate in Canada. Ontario has also promised to have 40 per cent women representation on their boards by 2019. Involving Toronto in the gender parity goal makes sense alongside the other levels of government so that women can have better representation in positions of power too.

Private FP500 companies have increased their gender parity on boards in their companies to 19.5 per cent in 2015, according to a report by the Canadian Board Diversity Council. Ontario Securities Commission rose the bar when they created new disclosure criteria for gender diversity in Dec. 2014.  Public boards have a lower percentage of equal representation compared to private corporations in Canada.

In a country that advocates on behalf on gender equality, I wonder when the employment sector will embrace gender parity entirely. Both public and private institutions need equal representation on their boards, and it is interesting to see that private companies are leading the way. The fact that the motion was pushed to executive council in October indicates the issue was dismissed in the wake of an important time for gender equality in politics. Toronto needs to join the movement and take women’s rights seriously at City Council.

Women’s Post will be watching to see how seriously the motion is taken in October.

Budget cuts could increase efficiency of affordable housing

City Council made an announcement of a 2.6 per cent budget cut that will affect all programs, including affordable housing. So what does this mean for the Open Door program and other affordable housing initiatives in the city?

When the budget cuts were presented at council Tuesday, Councillor Mike Layton put forward a motion to protect Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC), which the chair of affordable housing and Councillor Ana Bailao surprisingly voted against.

Though budget cuts are never welcome news for desperate programs like affordable housing, it isn’t as dire as it may seem. Councillor Bailao explains an alternative perspective to the budget cuts involving affordable housing that would ensure it doesn’t cut essential services, but instead would rid the system of inefficiencies.

“We weren’t discussing if anything specific was going to be cut. At community housing, we have 107 IT applications that don’t speak on each other. If we embark on an IT restructure and reduce the cost of doing things, isn’t that a good thing?” Bailao says. “There was nobody talking about cutting anything with an impact. If I can get 2.6 per cent in reduction to be more efficient, why wouldn’t I look at that?”

If the budget cuts put pressure on TCHC to make it more efficient, it could benefit the affordable housing agenda overall. The affordable housing corporation has come under fire over for their inefficiencies, long waitlists, and a lack of proper care for residents. Perhaps tightening up operations would propel TCHC into gear. Open Door, an affordable housing program and approved and amended Wednesday, attempts to address some of these concerns.

The Open Door Affordable Housing program was introduced by Councillor Bailao and Mayor John Tory in November 2015 in an attempt to meet housing targets put forth by the 10-year affordable housing plan. “The plan is for 1000 rental units and 200 ownership annually. There hasn’t been one year that we have fulfilled that goal,” Bailao says. “We know the city is trying hard and we are trying to enhance the partnership. Aside from the affordable housing program, we are saying the city is going to contribute.” Open Door streamlines building applications that have a minimum of 20 per cent affordable housing, provides government land and provides incentives such as the avoidance of building fees and permits.

Additionally, 294 new affordable housing properties were approved in council on Tuesday. Councillor Ana Bailao and other City Council members are slowly but surely making progress in the affordable housing profile though sometimes success feels limited. The recent 550 subsidies for $250 for families that have been on the waitlist for 10 years or more is a prime example of how the needs of people who require housing are not being met as much as the city would like.

“These are larger families that have been on the list for so long. Having a federal government that is talking about a federal housing strategy allows us to do a little more,” Bailao says. “They will be allowed to continue on the waiting list because we don’t believe it is enough but it is a little bit of help.” The Federal Housing Strategy that was recently launched should further help support affordable housing in Toronto.

The Federal Housing Strategy and Toronto’s Housing Summit should help to promote fresh ideas. The Summit will be put on by the City of Toronto to promote new ideas and gather stakeholders to talk about affordable housing solutions. Using sustainable building practices is an example of a possible solution to reduce costs and support the environment.  “The province released their green fund for social housing so that we can get environmental and repairs benefits, and reductions in operations such as electricity. More and more social housing providers are going in that direction,” Bailao says.

It is an uphill battle for Councillor Bailao and the TCHC because of the long waitlist and lack of available affordable housing, but innovation and perseverance could bring the change that Toronto needs. Open Door is a step in the right direction, and it will be interesting to see where the budget cuts are applied.

Open your door to the housing agenda at City Council

Affordable housing is on the agenda at this month’s city council meeting, only falling behind transit as a central focus. The Open Door Affordable Housing Program spearheaded by Toronto Mayor John Tory and Councillor Ana Bailão is on the agenda at the July City Council. Here is a rundown of the different programs and motions being recommended:

The Open Door program works to streamline the affordable housing process to speed up approvals and provide incentives for developers to create affordable and mixed-use housing. Open Door would provide incentives to private developers who are looking to build affordable housing. This includes providing an exemption from building and planning permit fees in order to build affordable housing and would be secured for a 20-year term.

The Open Door program is part of the 10-year Affordable Housing Action Plan 2010-2020 (HOT). HOT has a target of 1000 affordable rental homes and 200 new affordable ownership homes annually, or 10,000 rentals and 2000 ownership homes over 10 years. Currently, the project is set to fall short by 6000 rental units and nearly 600 affordable ownership homes. Open Door hopes to remedy that situation by implementing more development by the private sector, piloting projects, activating government land, and streamlining city processes.

The CityPlace site at Bathurst St. and Lakeshore Blvd. and is one of the five sites chosen to kick off the project. This project will provide 389 affordable rental and ownership units. There will be 80 affordable homes built in the area.

Other projects that will be discussed in City Council include a program for 100 new affordable rentals and ownership homes at 30 Tippet Rd, and 32 new affordable ownership homes at 2 Bicknell Ave. Securing affordable ownership housing at 505 Richmond St. W. is a priority and property tax exemptions at 3087 Danforth Ave. and at 3738 St. Clair Ave. E. is also on the agenda.

Councillor Joe Cressy also introduced an item that discusses the role of Toronto Community Housing. This item on the agenda recommends that City Council transition a portion of Toronto Community Housing Corporation into a new community-based non-profit corporation. This recommendation was made in light of the organization’s reputation of being an unsuitable landlord for affordable housing tenants. Cressy is pushing for more council support in affordable housing to give residents better care.

It is a busy day in City Council, and the transit debate is sure to take over the agenda Wednesday. However, we can hope that once a decision has been made the city can finally focus on the affordable housing projects the residents of Toronto desperately need.

WATCH: Mayor Ford charges at crowd and knocks over Cllr. Pam McConnell

Everyday it is something new with Rob Ford. Like today, when the spectacle at City Hall got to be too much and Rob Ford charged at the crowd knocking over Councillor Pam McConnell. Seriously? Yep. Okay. That is my mayor.

It is almost exhausting to watch this go on and on every day.

Watch the video and let us know what you think, is Rob Ford utterly and completely out of control, or is there any semblance of a mayor left to salvage from this international trainwreck spectacle?

Follow Travis on Twitter at @TravMyers.

Follow Women’s Post on Twitter at @WomensPost.