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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.

New Mainstreet Research poll shows Toronto crazy for tolls

There has been a lot of criticism following Toronto Mayor John Tory’s new proposal to toll the Gardiner Expressway and the Don Valley Parkway. But, what do Torontonians really think? A recent poll published by the Transit Alliance, a non-political organization that works with people in the transit and infrastructure industry, shows that over 50 per cent of Toronto residents actually support the use of tolls.

The poll, which was conducted by Mainstreet Research on Nov. 25, surveyed residents from all 44 wards in Toronto to find out if they supported tolling major roadways to pay for infrastructure and transit. What they found was an overwhelming endorsement of the mayor’s proposal. Sixty-five per cent of Toronto respondents said that tolls were the preferred source of revenue compared to increasing property taxes or introducing a sales tax.

This statistic was further broken down into regions: 72 per cent in the downtown core, 64 per cent in North York, 62 per cent in Scarborough, and 57 per cent in Etobicoke.

When asked specifically about tolls, respondents across the board said they would be supportive of implementing them on the DVP and Gardiner.

The question was: “Proponents of road tolls for the Don Valley Parkway and the Gardiner Expressway say road tolls would force non-city of Toronto residents to pay their fare share; critics say road tolls are an unnecessary tax hike. Do you approve or disapprove of introducing tolls on the DVP and Gardiner Expressway to pay for transit and infrastructure?

Support for tolls was the highest among downtown residents, with 70 per cent of respondents approving — including 52 per cent strongly approving — of the revenue sources. Residents of Etobicoke and Scarborough were less supportive of tolling, at 61 per cent and 68 per cent support respectively — still relatively high within the margins.

Only a third of Toronto residents approved the use of property tax increases, and even less supported the use of a sales tax (22 per cent).

While there are a number of critics that believe tolling to be an unfair tax on those living within the 905 region, this poll shows that even those living in Etobicoke understand the need to create revenue for better transit and infrastructure. The city needs to grow, and if the choices are between an increase in taxes or a toll on drivers, Toronto has made it clear that tolls are preferable.

If there is this much support throughout all the wards within the city, hopefully the mayor’s proposal will soar through council and Toronto can finally start to accumulate the funds it needs to continue developing transit and infrastructure throughout the GTHA.

Mainstreet Research surveyed a random sample of 2,280 Toronto residents, calling a mixture of landlines and cell phones. The poll has a margin of error of +/- 2.05 per cent.

Mayor John Tory right on the money with revenue tools

Toronto Mayor John Tory announced Thursday that he would be proposing the use of tolls and a hotel tax to create extra revenue for transit and infrastructure projects in the city. Prior to that announcement, a report was released by the Munk School at the University of Toronto indicating the need for a multi-tax system to pay for services. The conclusions of the report back up Tory’s decision to actively search for more revenue tools to help pay for the much-needed transit system being built in the city.

The report was written by Harry Kitchen, a professor in the economics department at Trent, and Enid Slack, director of the Institute on Municipal Finance and Governance and a professor at the Munk School of Global Affairs. They argue that property taxes, user fees, and transfers from other levels of governments have remained unchanged as large cities continue to grow and expand. This is unsustainable and larger cities in Canada must adapt.

The authors’ argue that decisions on public spending need to be linked with revenue decisions. This is what the mayor was trying to say in his speech on Thursday — that Toronto can’t afford to keep building and providing better service unless there is a way to pay for this growth.

The report also makes mention of services that benefit people across municipal boundaries like roads. While the report suggests transfer of responsibility to the province, sometimes that isn’t possible. Tolls, for example, would be a good compromise, allowing people who often travel into the city on a daily basis to contribute in a way besides property taxes.

In terms of the property tax, something Mayor Tory refuses to increase by more than half a per cent, the authors’ say it’s a good way to raise revenue for infrastructure, but that a mix of taxes is recommended. Property tax is also more expensive to administer compared to income or sales tax. “The property tax is relatively inelastic (it does not grow automatically as the economy grows), highly visible, and politically contentious,” the report reads. “It may therefore be insufficient to fund the complex and increasing demands on local governments.”

“A mix of taxes would give cities more flexibility to respond to local conditions such as changes in the economy, evolving demographics and expenditure needs, changes in the political climate, and other factors.”

The report suggests charging user fees for services as often as possible, as under-pricing can result in over-consumption. Tolls were specifically mentioned as an example of a user fee that can be used on a major highway or arterial road running into a big city. While high-occupancy tolls, which charges vehicles for using a specific lane, can be effective on big highways, it’s much more efficient to toll the entire roadway.

Revenue collected from the tolls in place on the 407 in 2011 earned the provincial government an extra $675 million. The proposal set forth by Tory indicated an extra $200 million in revenues with a $2 toll charge on the Gardiner Expressway and the Don Valley Parkway. The other benefit is that it will reduce congestion and unlock gridlock while creating funds that can be dedicated for transit.

Other options presented in the report include a parking charge, an increase in personal income and sales tax, a fuel tax, hotel tax, and vehicle registration fee. The conclusion seems to be by increasing/implementing a number of these revenue tools, it won’t affect a singular demographic to harshly while still generating funding for a large Canadian city to grow.

It looks like our mayor was right on the money, so to speak.

Mayor John Tory proposes tolls for DVP and Gardiner

The city of Toronto has finally clued in — if you want change, you need to be willing to make the unpopular decision to pay for it. As the mayor said in a speech Thursday afternoon, “If we are to achieve those goals we have to acknowledge that things we need, from transit to affordable housing, are not free. Pretending otherwise is not responsible and it’s not fair to the people of Toronto.”

Mayor John Tory chose to announce a new proposal to find much-needed revenue to help pay for the new transit network being built in the city at a luncheon at the Toronto Region Board of Trade Thursday afternoon.

What was this exciting solution? It was tolls.

Tory is proposing a $2 single-use toll to use the Don Valley Parkway and the Gardiner Expressway. This will bring in an approximate $200 million of extra revenue that can be used specifically for infrastructure. This would be a tax on everyone, whether or not they live in the city or not. This will ensure that those who work in the city also contribute to its growth.

“People say that Toronto’s population is approximately 2.8 million. That’s true, at night, when the people who live here are home sleeping,” said Tory. “But by day, the number of people in this city goes up dramatically with all the people who come to work or to visit, all the while using the services paid for by Toronto taxpayers.”

The details of the proposal are still unknown. It will be presented to executive committee next week along with all the other options for revenue tools. The city has to find about $33 billion over the next 20 years to fund capital projects, despite provincial and federal aide.

Mayor Tory has said he will not be considering vehicle registration tax or a parking levy. Two other forms of revenue were proposed during the speech, including a half per cent levy on property taxes and a mandatory hotel tax at all Toronto hotels and short-term rentals like Airbnb.

During a press conference following the speech, the mayor said that doing nothing is not an option. The $2 cost, as well as the functionality of the tolls, will be up for discussion at city council in the upcoming months. Assuming city council sees the value of tolls, Tory hopes to see it implemented as of 2019.

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.

‘Ride responsibly’: CondomTO campaign winners are announced

What would you want to see on your condom wrapper? How about ‘wrap your willie’  or ‘no glove, no love’? The possibilities are truly endless!

Cue Toronto — the city that likes to keep up with the trends. Toronto not only has it’s own condom designs, but also holds a contest so that residents can design their own. This year’s winners of the CondomTO contest were recently announced by Toronto Public Health. Over four hundred people submitted condom designs, and only 10 finalists were chosen. The top four condoms will be passed out at various health centres in the city, and the two top-choices will receive a cash award, and a year’s supply of their condoms. They will also get to choose a health organization to donate their condoms too.

The judging process was really serious, and focused on the quality of design, originality, and a focus on themes relevant to Toronto. Because that’s what everyone looks for in a condom, am I right?!

There were two separate “categories” with a winner and a runner up in each one. Here are the best designs:

Put It On Toronto by Diane Adams. Photo provided from condomTO, Toronto Public Health.
Put It On Toronto by Diane Adams. Photo provided from condomTO, Toronto Public Health.

The Open Grand Prize winner, Diane Adams, is a graduate of Seneca College’s graphic design program and won with a design that featured ‘put it on Toronto’. Adams has over 15 years’ experience in graphic design and has worked for Rogers Communications, Kia Motors, and the Toronto Blue Jays.

Ride responsibly by Serge Leshchuk. Provided from condomTO, Toronto Public Health.
Ride responsibly by Serge Leshchuk. Provided from condomTO, Toronto Public Health.

The Open Runner-up, Serge Leschuk, a social media strategist and content creator in Toronto, designed a condom that focused on Toronto transit saying ‘condomTo- ride responsibly’. Leschuk is self-taught in design, writing, and video production.

No transfers by Andrea Por. Provided from condomTO contest, Toronto Public Health.
No transfers by Andrea Por. Provided from condomTO contest, Toronto Public Health.

The Student Grand Prize was won by Andre Por, an advertising and graphic design student at Humber College. She designed another transit-inspired condom that focused on the design of Toronto’s subway transfers to demonstrate how condoms help stop the transfer of sexually transmitted diseases (STIs). Por is a previous Fine Arts graduate from Queen’s and began her Graphic Design diploma in 2015.

Condom LuberJack by Janine Thomas. Provided from condomTO, Toronto Public Health.
Condom LuberJack by Janine Thomas. Provided from condomTO, Toronto Public Health.

The student runner-up, Janine Thomas, is a fourth year student in the Bachelor of Design program at York-Sheridan and designed a Canadian-themed condom that said, ‘cover your lumber, Jack’. Thomas is a fourth year student and has a passion for typography and dogs.

A condom contest is a stellar idea for Toronto, a city known for it’s rising STI rates (isn’t that what every city wants on its resume?). But, why stop there. Wouldn’t it be great if Toronto also had a design contest for tampons or pad wrappings? It’s the same region, so why not go there! It would be a great way to dismiss the stereotypes and stigma associated with the act of menstruation. Plus, a little added humour does wonders for the PMS.

Women’s Post hopes CondomTO continues to host this contest on an annual basis. Sexual health is something that is not taught enough, and using fun designs on condoms is a great way to encourage its use. Plus, they are just hilarious. Who knows what people will come up with next year. Until then, have fun, but remember ‘cover your lumber, Jack’, okay?

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.

Presto fare system not working up to standard

What is the deal with Presto these days?

On three separate occasions, I have gone into subway stations to fill up my Presto card and the machine is either broken or refuses to load my “e-purse”. The machines on buses and streetcars have also been malfunctioning, and an internal audit has confirmed that five to six per cent of machines aren’t working at all times on TTC transit.

Presto is supposed to be running on the entire transit system by the end of 2016, and will eventually replace the metropass and TTC fare tokens. Considering that the machines malfunction so often, it is inconceivable to think that Toronto’s entire TTC system will rely on the Presto fare system. If you think that TTC delays are long now, can you even imagine?

The Ontario government signed a $250 million contract with Accenture and other vendors to develop and operate Presto by the end of 2016. As the operator, these companies must design the software, test it, manufacture, implement, do rollout and support the project for 10 years. It appears that Accenture and the other vendors aren’t living up to its promise considering rollout issues, due to the machines malfunctioning. The project’s glitches and high costs have also been criticized by the Auditor General of Ontario.

When a student or senior tries to get their fare for a lower price on Presto, it is necessary to commute up to Davisville Station to get the specialized rate. This surely prevents seniors with limited mobility from accessing the service and is not user-friendly. When the Presto system was implemented in TTC, more planning and implementation of these issues should have been considered and solved. With the end of 2016 looming, machines not working and not having specialized fare options available at every station shows how poorly the Presto card system is working.

TTC had hoped to implement the Presto fare system instead of tokens or the metropass by sometime in 2017. It has been delayed and a lot of questions remain on how that will happen. How will a pay-asyou go system be implemented without crashing the system? How will single-fare transfers be managed? What will be the daily cap? How will the metropass work as a part of the Presto card? Accenture and other vendors will also have to really step up to the plate and fix a lot of unnecessary issues before anyone believes Toronto commuters can rely on Presto as one of their main transit options.

The idea of integrating the GO transit system and TTC into one fare was a spectacular idea for Toronto and Ontario. It is frusturating that the rollout of the Presto machines has been so disappointing. It will be interesting to see if Accenture and the other vendors can fix the operating issues with the system, and then TTC can move forward with integrating the Presto system into Toronto successfully.

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.