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Is the Relief Line finally spurring forward?

Earlier this week, Toronto Mayor John Tory reaffirmed his commitment and support of the Yonge Relief Line. He affirmed his support while at a conference hosted by the Canadian Council for Public-Private Partnerships to a crowd of investors, builders, and designers. This transit line has been labelled a priority by not only the mayor, but also city staff and transit experts.

City staff have already said that Line 1 will be at capacity by 2031. In the meantime, further transit lines are being built — the Eglinton Crosstown, the Yonge-Sheppard Subway Extension, and elements of SmartTrack. And these are only the city initiatives. The province is also planning to build high-speed rail connecting Windsor and Toronto. The problem is that all of these lines funnel transit riders towards the downtown core. Without a relief line in place, Toronto’s Line 1 will be packed to the brim. It’s becoming more and more important to get the relief line built — and yet decision-making is moving at a slow pace.

Council has approved the alignment of the southern end of the relief line, connecting the Bloor-Danforth line with the downtown core via Carlaw Ave.

Toronto’s relationship with the province has been rocky since Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne refused to allow the city to collect funds using tolls on the Don Valley Parkway and the Gardiner Express, but it seems to finally be levelling out. Mayor Tory is having regular meetings with the provincial government, and seems to believe that funding is not as much of a problem as it once was. This is good news, and hopefully means the relief line can progress more quickly.

Toronto received $120 million from the federal government to fund infrastructure like the relief line, but it is at risk of losing the money because there is a time stamp attached. This means that if city staff don’t use the money by 2018, the federal government could take it away. Considering how long it takes for council to make decisions, especially when it comes to spending money on transit, this deadline is not realistic.

Mayor Tory has requested an extension of that deadline, but no answer has come. About $2.7 million of that money was earmarked to study the relief line.

Following the approval of the alignment for the relief line, city staff have begun to conduct a Transit Project Assessment Process (TPAP), which includes advancing planning and design

Are Smart Cities the future of congestion relief?

The last time Mayor John Tory spoke about roads at the Toronto Region Board of Trade, he announced his intention to propose tolling of the Don Valley Parkway and the Gardiner Expressway.

At Wednesday’s annual meeting, Tory again talked about the state of Toronto’s streets and the need to tackle congestion in the city.

“Am I satisfied with the traffic and congestion we still see? NO, I am not. Is this good for our residents and our economy? No, it is now. We have to do more for our economy, for our residents, for our businesses and productivity and competitiveness,” Tory said at the Board of Trade.

In this speech, Tory announced a new “Smart Streets Plan”. This plan will center around the collection of data. Toronto has completed its first real-time and historical data agreement, which will provide real-time traffic flow data. This data will be used to help manage traffic better.

The city also announced a partnership with Waze, a community-based traffic and navigation app. This app will be able to provide alerts about collisions and lane closures so that the city can push updates out to commuters.

Other parts of the Smart Streets Plan include the implementation of smart traffic signals, steps to manage curb space, and more parking blitzs in September.

Tory also praised the city’s King St. Pilot Study, saying it is a necessary project to help move the 65,000 people who use transit to navigate that corridor.

None of these announcements are as daring as that to toll the DVP and Gardiner, but considering the province has refused to allow Toronto to toll its own roadways, they are necessary steps towards trying to relieve congestion. Changing urban or street design to try and increase the flow of traffic will make Toronto a smart-city, but only if the rest of city council approves these innovative projects and studies.

 

What do you think of the Smart Streets Plan and the King St. Pilot Study?

Who’s promising what for the relief line?

Toronto Mayor John Tory knows what the city needs and is not afraid to fight for it. Tuesday, in what may be a last desperate attempt to prove to the current provincial government he is not to be trifled with, Tory announced that he would remove his support for the Yonge North Subway Extension unless Ontario provided more funds for the relief line.

The Ontario government has informed the City of Toronto that they will be implementing a budget freeze, which means no new money will come in for this important project. Over the last few weeks, Tory has been meeting with other party leaders to see what they will be offering the city in terms of transit and infrastructure. Here is the rundown:

Liberals

Ontario’s 2017-18 budget indicates the province will continue to “support for the planning of the Downtown Relief Line in Toronto”, but no further funding was made available. Currently, Ontario has offered $150 million for the planning of this integral transit project.

Instead, the province is standing firm in their contributions via the gas tax program, which promises to double the municipal shares from two to four cents per litre by 2021.

Toronto Mayor John Tory may not have been given the right to toll the DVP and Gardiner Expressway, but the provincial government has permitted the city to implement a levy on “transient accommodations”. This will allow Toronto to tax hotels and short-term accommodations in order to generate much-needed revenue for infrastructure in the city.

Conservatives

Patrick Brown, leader of the Ontario Conservative Party, met with Mayor Tory at the beginning of May to outline further promises for social housing and funding for Toronto Community Housing Corporation— something the Liberal government did not allot money for in this year’s budget. The promises made included allowing TCHC to purchase natural gas independently instead of bulk buying from the Housing Services Corporation. The idea is that TCHC will be able to save money be negotiating better prices on natural gas. The city estimates savings of about $6.3 million.

Other inclusions in the PC plan: financial support of the Scarborough subway (actual contribution unknown), supporting TTC fares on SmartTrack RER, and pledged to intervene so that Bombardier trains for the Eglinton Crosstown arrive on time.

The Yonge Relief Line was not mentioned at all in the statement released following the meeting. It should also be noted that during the provincial budget release, Brown said he was not in favour of tolls or short-term accommodation levys.

NDP

Andrea Horwath, leader of the Ontario NDP Party, was the latest major politician to meet with Tory. She promised to provide one third of the repair costs for social housing if elected.

In a press release passed out to journalists following the Liberal budget, Horwath also announced the party would enter into a 50 per cent funding agreement with municipal partners to help pay for transit operating costs.

Horwath has not ruled out the use of tolls or short-term accommodation levies; although she has not said she has not clarified if she would implement such revenue tools.

Green Party

The Green Party is all for the use of tolls (dynamic tolling) and congestion charges, in addition to uploading the cost of maintaining and operating the Don Valley Parkway and the Gardiner Expressway back to the province.

The money collected from these tolls would be dedicated to transit, ensuring that those who choose to use alternative modes of transportation are able to use a modern and well-maintained system. This would also free up a couple billion dollars worth of funding the City of Toronto could use to build better transit infrastructure and maintain other roads within the city.

Is Ontario a ‘real funding partner’ for Toronto’s relief line?

The Yonge Relief Line may have a new alignment — and that decision couldn’t come soon enough. This alignment is one of the few remaining steps that need approval before city staff can push this much-needed project forward.

And this project NEEDS to move forward.

The relief line has been talked about on and off for the last decade, and yet, it is still nowhere near completion. Politics always got in the way. Since then, the original Yonge line (Line 1) has become more crowded. This has made commutes nearly unbearable during peak hours. It has effected ridership and forced more people to use their cars instead of taking public transportation.

While some question the need for a relief line, especially with SmartTrack on the table, city staff, the Toronto Transit Commission, and Metrolinx have all come together to label the relief line as a priority for Toronto’s new transit network. Without it, they say, congestion on the Yonge Line will not be alleviated.

The biggest problem with the relief line will be the funding. As Toronto Mayor John Tory said repeatedly at a series of press conferences on transit last week, without serious funding from provincial and federal partners, Toronto will be unable to grow its transit network.

The Ontario government promised in 2016 to provide $150 million in funds to the planning and design of the relief line. That number has not changed, despite the current cost projection of $6.8 billion for the relief line. This means that the provincial contribution won’t do anything other then fund a study or two.

It’s also why Tory has been campaigning and pushing the province for more. When the province dismissed Toronto’s attempt at raising funds through tolls, they effectively removed a significant form of revenue for the city. Without that money, Toronto has no choice but to make its residents pay for the transit network, no matter what the politicians say. That’s why Tory is asking the province to step up and become a “real partner” in their efforts to fund transit infrastructure. He wants the province and the federal government to each pay 40 per cent of the relief line.

The province has been hitting back, indicating they are a “stable provincial funding partner”, despite the lack of funding announcements. But Toronto residents are not falling for it — and that fact is already showing in the polls.

Taking away a revenue-generating tool like tolls without offering a solution is not leadership. Ignoring the needs of one of the biggest cities in the province is also not the way to get elected, despite what advisors may be whispering into the Premier’s ears. The Liberal government will find that out if they refuse Tory’s proposal of short-term hotel taxes as a revenue tool.

Back to the relief line: In May, the executive committee will debate the new alignment option down Carlaw Ave., between Gerrard St. and Eastern Ave., before sending the route to city council for approval.

At this moment, construction will begin in 2025.

Green Party hopes to woo voters with honesty and revenue tools

The Ontario Green Party is working on a comprehensive revenue tool package that will help fund infrastructure and transit projects throughout the province. The package will include a plethora of options for drivers and transit users, including the use of tolls and congestion charges in addition to uploading the cost of maintaining and operating the Don Valley Parkway and the Gardiner Express back to the province.

“One of the biggest challenges facing the GTHA is gridlock,” says party leader Mike Schreiner. “It affects our economy to the tune of $6 billion in lost productivity.”

According to Schreiner, the Green Party is willing to do something other political parties are not — explain honestly and openly what it will take to improve transit and quality of life in cities across Ontario.

“This is a situation where political self-interest is trumping the people’s interest,” he says. “There is a myth that somehow all this infrastructure is going to be built. Imagine if our great grandparents hadn’t paid for dams in Niagara Falls that generates electricity … or hadn’t agreed to pay for the cost of the 400 series highways that enabled us to ship goods to province and the US. It’s time for our generation to step up to plate and fund transit infrastructure desperately needed.”

As part of this plan, the Green Party is supporting dynamic tolling, where drivers are charged a larger cost for using certain roadways like the Gardiner and DVP during on-peak hours and less (or not at all) during off-peak hours. The hope is that this will encourage those who can use transit, to do so, and those who must drive, to carpool.

“A toll taxes people regardless of time of day when real problem is rush hour,” says Tim Grant, Green Party shadow cabinet minister for transportation. “The dynamic road pricing – although it sounds harsh at first glance – is really fair and equitable. It acknowledges that there is a higher cost to discourage drivers in rush hours.”

The money collected from these tolls would be dedicated to transit, ensuring that those who choose to use alternative modes of transportation are able to use a modern and well-maintained system. It’s a win-win scenario — the challenge is to convince people the long-term benefits are worth the cost.

“If you reduce traffic congestion, people have a higher quality of life,” Grant says. “Air pollution is reduced, fuel economy is reduced, which leads to higher air quality and more time on [drivers] hands.”

Grant says the problem with the current funding provided by both the provincial and federal governments to municipalities for infrastructures is that it only pays for the initial planning and construction of a transit project, but not to operate or maintain it. This results in poorer service and low ridership.

Another aspect of the Green Party’s revenue plan is to upload the costs of operating and maintaining the DVP and Gardiner Expressway back to the province, something that was promised over 10 years ago. This would free up a couple billion dollars worth of funding the City of Toronto could use to build better transit infrastructure and maintain other roads within the city.

The key, both Schreiner and Grant say, is to actually listen to experts and communicate that information honestly to the public, without political agenda.

“Part of the problem is that political parties prepare their platform and policies based on a calculation of what voters think – and it’s a sad state because the alternative is for a political leader to go out and be honest and say, you won’t like this, but you will love it afterwards,” Grant said. “It needs political leadership willing to get out in front of all this and say we are doing this because people will get to work faster, kids will have better transit, and this will be a benefit. Vote for me or not – but I will try to make life better.”

The Green Party will discuss their platform and comprehensive revenue package in May in preparation for the 2018 election.

Toronto city council approves budget in light of tolls

City council voted to approve a “low-tax budget”, as described by city manager Peter Wallace during his presentation on the floor. It wasn’t an easy decision, and councillors spent about 15 hours debating and arguing the minutia details of each motion presented.

At the end of the day, the budget was approved nearly as-is 27-16.

In total, Toronto homeowners can expect an increase of 2 per cent on their residential property taxes, equalling 3.29 per cent, or $90 on average per home. While some councillors tried to introduce motions to decrease or increase that number, most saw it as a compromise for homeowners.

City staff frustratingly had to explain to councillors how taxes worked and that “budgets aren’t just about numbers. They are about the reality of city services.” When councillors tried to argue for more reduction in the budget or for lower taxes, staff had to remind them that property taxes were still well below inflation, and that over the past 19 years, city council has approved a property tax at or below the rate of inflation 15 times.

“The budget is consistent with Council expense policy and service direction and remains neutral in terms of overall revenue burden as a share of the economy,” said City Manager Peter Wallace. “I encourage Council to continue to address the cost drivers for City services and agencies, and look at stable revenue options to strengthen our fiscal sustainability.”

The new budget includes some investment in Toronto Community Housing, Toronto Transit Commission, and overall capital projects. At the same time, many reductions had to be made in order to balance the budget, including dipping into reserve funds in order to accommodate an extra $2 million in street sweeping.

“Today, City Council approved a balanced, responsible budget that invests in the needs of the people who live and work in Toronto,” said Mayor Tory in a statement released around midnight. “This budget delivers significant new funding for transit, child care and housing. Through the City Building Fund, we will begin to make much-needed investments in transit expansion and major infrastructure repair.”

Critics of the 2017 budget have called it a band-aid solution. Without the introduction of new revenue tools, the city will be forced to continuously reduce services while increasing taxes. Wallace pointed out that without the options of tolls — an option the provincial government squashed last month — it will be very difficult to maintain the services within the city. Before next year’s budget, Wallace says Toronto will have to ask itself how it will replace the approximate $5 billion tolls could have brought in to fund capital projects.

CEO Sarah Thomson reveals purpose of Green Cities

In addition to being the publisher of Women’s Post, Sarah Thomson is also the volunteer CEO of the Transit Alliance. The Transit Alliance is a non-profit that is dedicated towards making the golden horseshoe area as green and pedestrian/transit-friendly as possible. In January, she hosted Green Cities 2017, a breakfast attended by over 300 business, community, and political leaders.

Attendees got to listen to two panels of experts discussing sustainable options for transit and building.

See what Thomson said at the end of Green Cities:

Ontario will still have a revenue problem

I became a Liberal advocate in 2011 because they were the only party honest enough to admit that both Ontario and Toronto have huge revenue problems. Services like healthcare and education suck up all the tax dollars collected by the province and, as our population grows, there is an even greater need for more funding options. Few politicians have the guts to stand up for increasing taxes or implementing tolls because they risk their chances of re-election. But Toronto Mayor John Tory did. He stood up for tolls despite the risk of losing support in the suburbs because he, like many of us, understands that dedicated funding for transit has to come from somewhere.

I met Kathleen Wynne and others in the Liberal party who said they were willing to admit that Ontario didn’t collect enough revenue to pay for the services residents want — services like transit and housing that cities desperately need. I became a Liberal because of these facts. I believed the Premier would stand up and do the right thing, and not cave to low-polling numbers or pressure from cabinet members desperate to get re-elected. She once believed that tolls were a necessary tool to get the dedicated transit funding Toronto needs.

Tolls on Toronto highways are just as important as tolls on provincially-owned highways. Not allowing Toronto to access this funding tool will simply push the cost of transit expansion and other services on to future generations. From health care, to education, to efficient transit, we don’t have enough funding to pay for everything. But today, Premier Wynne has decided to ignore that problem and gamble that economic growth and low gas prices will last forever.

Relying on our current gas taxes for the billions of dollars needed over the next decade for transit expansion in Toronto is the same “do nothing” approach that has caused the growth of gridlock in the city. Gridlock is costing residents over $13 billion per year in time and lost revenues. A slight slip in economic growth, or increase in gas prices will lower the amount of revenue Ontario collects, meaning we’ll be financing all this transit expansion through debt.

So, why would Premier Wynne go against everything she stood for? Rumours of internal “poli-tricking” swirl with cabinet ministers outside Toronto apparently demanding she stop her support of Mayor Tory’s plan. The Premier should remember how flip flopping on the gas plant in Mississauga almost cost Liberals the 2011 election and this huge change in her position on Toronto tolls may very well lose her the liberal base of support in 2018. This kind of internal poli-tricking is why voters lose faith in politicians, and will choose an honest buffoon over a smart, intelligent, candidate.

Today I am ashamed.

City council votes to support tolls

“You rarely have to ask permission to do the right thing.”

This quote comes from an open letter released Tuesday morning, with the signature of five different Canadian mayors attached to it. The letter calls for more municipal power to create city revenue, so that municipal leaders can match infrastructure funding provided by the provincial and federal governments.

In essence, Canada’s biggest cities, including Toronto, were asking for the power to do their part to expand and grow.

This sentiment was much needed prior to the city council meeting Tuesday, where councillors discussed how they would be paying for city services for the foreseeable future.

After much debate, city council approved staff recommendations by staff to generate revenue by using various taxes and tolls. The implementation of tolls is a brave new step for the city – proof that politicians understand the need to create revenue and alleviate congestion on city roads.

Toronto Mayor John Tory proposed the use of tolls on the Don Valley Parkway and the Gardiner Express over a month ago, and since then it has received a mostly positive response. The money would be directly funnelled into maintaining and funding transit-related projects, which works to both alleviate congestion on roadways and expand Toronto’s transit network.

City council ultimately voted in support of the mayor’s proposal. Nine councillors opposed the motion.

These tolls, which could be implemented as early as 2020, would affectively alleviate congestion, unlock gridlock, and help pay for the much-needed transit network being built throughout Toronto. A win-win scenario.

Council also agreed to look into a 0.5 per cent levy on property taxes, a four per cent tax on hotels, up to a 10 per cent tax on short-term rentals like Airbnb, and harmonizing and/or increasing land transfer taxes. The city will also be asking the province for a share of the harmonized sales tax.

The debate on tolls will continue in the new year, when city staff will present options for implementation, including cost.

City Manager Peter Wallace made it clear in his presentation on the city budget that council had to approve of some of the proposed revenue tools — if they didn’t, they should be prepared to provide solutions to the $33 billion in unfunded projects the city is undergoing.

“I think it comes down to what level of public service does city council want to endorse,” Wallace said bluntly. He also made it clear that by voting to take tolls to the next level, council can rest assured that city staff will proved thoughtfully.

Other councillors were not so thoughtful. Many ignored the fact that people pay for the use of public transportation and that user fees are popularly used in large cities. However, at the end of the day, even the wary councillors understood the need to make a firm decision or risk being left with a large revenue gap to fill.

And to that brave majority, Toronto thanks you.

What’s the deal with Toronto’s revenue tools?

The City of Toronto is facing a budgeting crisis with over $91 million worth of funds to find by City Council. Several revenue tools were presented by city manager, Peter Wallace in an effort to find money to fill the gaps and pay for all of the projects that are much-needed in Toronto.

Terms like ‘property tax’, ‘municipal land transfer tax’, ‘parking levy’, and ‘expressway tolls’ , are being thrown around like crazy, and it is easy to get lost in the world of financial terms. Understanding the inner-workings of the various revenue tools is the best way to decide which financial tools should be adopted by the city and which of them should be discarded. That’s why Women’s Post has created this guide, to help our readers understand the ins and outs of the revenue tools presented in the executive committee, and what terms will be flying around next week at city council.

Property Tax

Property tax is a commonly used revenue tool and is most often brought up in city council. A property tax is a levy on a property the owner is required to pay. It is set by the governing authority of any given area, which in this case is the municipality of Toronto. Property taxes in Toronto are a hotly contested issue because Toronto property tax rates are the only metropolitan tax that is lower than the surrounding area, the GTHA, and politicians don’t want to raise them. The city has proposed a two per cent property tax hike, but Toronto Mayor John Tory vows to raise the property tax no higher than half a per cent. Instead he is pushing for alternatives instead of pushing more tax on property owners.

Municipal Land Transfer Tax

Municipal land transfer tax has been a popular option for Toronto in the last year and helped keep the property tax inflation rate at bay in last year’s budget. The municipal land transfer tax is a fee that is paid by the person who purchases the home to the municipality that is charging it. There are rebates for first-time home buyers and other jurisdictions, such as Vancouver, have imposed a foreign land transfer tax to help lower inflation in the real estate market. It is a useful tool, but was used in the 2016 budget so may not be a viable option when looking at other options for 2017. City Council will discuss harmonizing the Ontario land transfer tax with the municipal option, which would require legislative changes but would streamline the process in the long-run.

Personal Vehicle Tax

The personal vehicle tax has been a revenue tool that was presented in the past before at City Council and was not a popular option. Council will consider the re-introduction to tax $120 per vehicle annually, but Tory has stated he is not a big fan of this option. The rejection of the personal vehicle tax has angered environmental groups who want to see people choosing to drive vehicles in the city pay extra taxes. The personal vehicle tax is also an easy and quick tax to implement because it doesn’t require any extra infrastructure.

Hotel Tax

The hotel tax revenue tool is being hotly contested by the tourism and hotel industry, which has already seen slowed growth due to the increasing popularity of air bnbs and other short-term stays. By placing an extra tax on the hotel industry, it may put more pressure on hotels to pay when they can’t afford to do so. Tory rebutted in the executive committee though that the annual subsidy supplied to hotels would help pay for the hotel tax if it were approved. This revenue tool would require provincial legislative and regulatory reforms, and is not a popular option in regards to fairness, efficiency, and is low in revenue quality according to Wallace’s presentation.

Expressway Tolls

Expressway tolls are the newest revenue tool to be introduced by Mayor Tory and is a popular option. The expressway tolls would require vehicles to pay a fee when they use the Don Valley Parkway and the Gardiner Expressway. If the city charged $2 per trip, the annual revenue would be $166 million per year. The start-up cost to build the expressway tolls would be an estimated $100-$150 million and have ongoing operational costs of $50 to $60 million. The expressway tolls would require provincial legislative changes, but could be implemented in the 2017 budget. City Council will be focusing heavily on tolls next week.

There are many other revenue tools that were presented including an alcohol beverage tax, a parking levy, a third party sign tax, graduated residential property taxes, and a municipal sales tax. From the climate of the executive committee meeting, it would be surprising to see any of these options be approved. They have not been given the same amount of attention as the hotel tax and expressway tolls. A graduated residential property tax and a municipal sales tax in particular require provincial legislation changes and were listed by Wallace as aspirational changes to be further discussed in 2018.

In order to fully grasp the many revenue tool terms that will fly around at City Council next week, focus on the most important options that are available. Also remember to bring popcorn. Even though discussing financial tools can be a bit of a bore, City Council is sure to get lively when discussing the various revenue tools that were presented for debate.