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Toronto’s troubled transit: The future lies with Council and the time to act is now

Last year, Toronto City Councillors led by Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) Chair Karen Stintz reaffirmed a transit plan that allowed the Government of Ontario and Metrolinx to move forward. But lack of action on it has led to mass frustrations amongst Torontonians stuck in traffic on the way to work, packed in subways and buses, or feeling cheated because the transit system does not extend into their neighbourhood or communities. Unfortunately, despite the claims of a number of Councillors and Mayor Rob Ford, change is not happening.

Metrolinx and the TTC have both come out identifying the downtown relief line (DRL) as the next transit priority. It will be a huge relief for TTC commuters from North York and Scarborough, taking pressure off of the Yonge and Bloor-Danforth lines.

Toronto is a great City, envied by many. But success in recent decades has created challenges. Phrases like “world-class” have little meaning when you are stuck in traffic or have no reasonable transit options to mitigate that traffic. Congestion has been identified by the Toronto Board of Trade (TBOT) and renowned think-tanks as Toronto’s single biggest competitive disadvantage, costing the Greater Toronto-Hamilton Region (GTHA) $6 billion annually. Manufacturers have delays in shipping and moving inventory. Companies with valued and valuable staff waste unproductive time in traffic. If the City does nothing it will be the reason employers and their employees will leave or stay away from our City.

Solving transit gridlock is more than just dealing with individuals’ frustrations. It is making sure this and future generations will available job opportunities, careers and establish roots in Toronto. Millennials coming up in this City are making dramatically different choices about how they want to live and work. The City needs to be able to react to this and we need to be able to build a City for the future.

The City’s elected officials must be honest with themselves. Toronto is now paying the price for having done nothing over the past 20 years. That price of “doing nothing” will only increase. How much more is Eglinton going to cost today than if we had not stopped building it almost 20 years ago?

What will the cost of inaction be for all of us?

Whether and individual drives a car, takes the train, rides a bike or walks, a good public transit network is a necessity for a City the size of Toronto. Transit, like health care and education, is a public good. Everyone benefits from a transit system that works.

A sensible government must realize that unlocking our City’s transit mess will not come cheap. There are no magic solutions; there is no transit fairy or money tree.

City Council recently voted to reject revenue tools. It is time to put this in perspective.

First of all, that phrase fools no one. This is a conversation about taxes and tolls.

I have long considered myself a fiscal conservative. I generally support keeping budgets slim, regulations limited, and taxes low. I disagreed with the previous Mayor’s wasteful spending. I believe Mayor Ford’s agenda of cutting costs and engaging the private sector in outsourcing initiatives to be in the best interest of the City of Toronto. However, when it comes to spending money on unjustified and unfunded transit projects, a self-identified fiscal conservative has to say, “No.”

So when it comes to calling for new taxes, not a single advocate is doing it lightly. I believe in frugality when it comes to government spending, however I know that transit and subways are not built for free. A revolution of common sense at City Hall would allow the current administration’s power brokers to realize that they must find a way to pay for the transit infrastructure we need.

As Chair Stintz proclaimed on Twitter following Council’s decision to reject dedicated revenue, ‘Saying something and doing nothing is still “doing nothing”.’

The City still has a chance to be innovators. Now is City Councillors’ chance to be city builders and help restore pride in a city that works. The only question is; will they have the political will, or won’t they?

 

Follow Jordan on Twitter: @JordanAGlass

Toronto City Council – rudderless, erratic and irresponsible

After spending the past week at city council I have come away disappointed and disgusted by some of the self-aggrandizing, weak-kneed opportunists the city has elected to council. Many councillors, who have claimed to support revenue tools for transit, withdrew their support, choosing to protect their political derrieres.

Here’s the background: Toronto has spent 40 years quibbling over subway and transit expansion – mostly due to the lack of funds to build anything. It’s easier for councillors to debate over the lines than to take a stand on funding tools. Over the past few years Mayor Ford has claimed that “efficiencies” and “developers” would pay for the subway expansion. However the efficiencies he found added up to very little and should properly go to balancing the budget with any surplus going to paying down the debt. Developers informed the Mayor that they could not sell condos above subway stations for the $4 to $5 million price tag required to cover the $200 million cost of building the subway stations below. The value of the “air rights” Mayor Ford claimed would more than pay for subway expansion was completely bogus.

Thank gracious we still have Metrolinx, the transit organization set up by the Province to build and expand transit across the GTHA. After years of consultation with transit experts, policy wonks and politicians, they created a 25 year transit expansion plan. But the plan needs to be funded and will cost approximately $50 billion – this works out to  $2 billion per year needed to get transit in the Toronto region caught up after 40 years of neglect. On May 27, Metrolinx will announce the funding tools they believe the Province should use.

This opened the door for Toronto to present direction on revenue tools to Metrolinx and so council instructed city manager, Joe Pennnachetti, to do extensive consultations with the public and create a report summing up what transit revenue tools Toronto residents wanted to support. The report was extensive and the top four revenue tools chosen through public consultations were:

  1. Sales Tax
  2. Fuel Tax
  3. Parking Levy
  4. Development Charges

However, the Mayor and his executive tried to block the city from submitting any revenue options to Metrolinx, in a bid to push responsibility for any “taxation” to the provincial level, where the Mayor’s brother Councillor Doug Ford is planning to run for the provincial Conservatives and could use the issue to further define his anti-tax campaign.

Council over-ruled the brothers Ford insisting a “mature” conversation was needed. Unfortunately nothing even coming close to a mature conversation could be found at last week’s debate, which saw councillors ignore all the research and instead fly off with their own funding ideas and digress into soap box campaign speeches on the need for particular subway lines in each of their wards.

Councillor Josh Matlow – one of the few brave councillors in the bunch – proposed Motion 1.b suggesting council support the revenue tools outlined in the city manager’s report. Unfortunately this led to heated debate that carried on for three days.

The debate was divisive and provided the perfect  opportunity for councillors vying for the Mayor’s chair to demonstrate their leadership skills. But leadership did not appear, and unfortunately the anti-tax chants coming from brothers Ford worked to eventually push councillors away from backing any of the funding tools the city manager put forward.

Councillor Glen De Baeremaeker tried to score points with his constituents by refusing to consent to any transit revenue tools if plans did not change to include a subway in his ward.

Councillor Stintz, who had originally claimed to want an “adult” conversation on revenue tools, yet again compromised her credibility by ignoring her prior support for the Big Move transit plan and endorsing Councillor De Baeremaeker’s demand for a subway line. Not only did she support a new transit map (that seemed to be drawn on the back of a napkin) but she also backed out of supporting the revenue tools that the City Manager, the Toronto Regional Board of Trade, Civic Action and the Toronto Transit Alliance have all endorsed.

At one point Councillor Ford announced to the press “that if subways required transit revenue tools then there wouldn’t be any subways for Toronto.”

Councillor Vaughn created a motion asking city council to support “a surcharge on vinyl labels as a new tax dedicated to fund subways.” This caused quite a reaction from Councillor Ford (who is also the CEO of Deco labels) and Vaughan eventually withdrew it.

But it was Councillor Josh Colle who announced the most conniving and devious motion of the week: to amend the original motion (supporting the city manager’s revenue tools recommendations) and delete all revenue tool recommendations.  On a side note I wonder if the arrival of MPP Mike Colle (father of Councillor Josh Colle) into city council chambers had anything to do with the younger Councillor’s subsequent motion to delete all revenue tool recommendations? His motion’s main agenda was to push responsibility for revenue tools up to the Provincial level, and it would seem that those who voted for it are more concerned about appearances than doing what is right for Toronto.

Such strategic political maneuvering allows Councillors who supported Councillor Colle’s motion to circumvent their duty to the city without being too suspect while at the same time allowing them to honestly claim they didn’t back any revenue tools for transit. So instead of directing the province with recommendations on the transit revenue tools the city manager compiled from weeks of consultations with the public, these councillors simply supplied the province with a list of tools each one of them personally would not support, ignoring the will of their constituents and the research provided to them by the city manager.

This pathetic political posturing was supported by:

Ana Bailåo, Michelle Berardinetti, Raymond Cho, Josh Colle, Gary Crawford, Vince Crisanti, Glen De Bearemaeker, Mike Del Grande, Fran Di Giorgio, Doug Ford, Rob Ford, Mark Grimes, Doug Holiday, Norm Kelly, Gloria Lindsay Luby, Giorgio Mammoliti, Peter Milczyn, Frances Nunziata (Chair), Cesar Palacio, James Pasternak, Anthony Perruzza, Jaye Robinson, David Shiner, Karen Stintz, Michael Thompson, Krystin Wong-Tam

The councillors who stood firm in their commitment to transit revenue tools were:

Paul Ainslie, Maria Augimeri, Shelley Carroll, Janet Davis, Sarah Doucette, John Fillion, Paula Fletcher, Mary Fragedakis, Mike Layton, Chin Lee, Josh Matlow, Pam McConnell, Mary-Margaret McMahon, Joe Mihevc, Ron Moser, John Parker, Gord Perks and Adam Vaughan

These councillors deserve a hefty pat on the back for not putting their political careers ahead of doing what is needed for the Toronto. I tip my hat to each and every one of them.

City Council debates new revenue tools

It should have been a simple discussion. Toronto City Councillors were asked to debate the validity of looking at implementing new revenue tools as a means to generate dedicated funding toward the expansion of Toronto’s transit system. However, councillors took the long road there. A three-day debate that required multiple votes is what ensued.

Let us be clear. Councillors were not debating whether or not to implement new taxes, or specific taxes, or what exactly would be built using this newly generated revenue. This debate was to settle a matter as to whether or not examining the use of transit tools would be advisable going forward. In the interest of democracy and public discourse this should have been a short debate. But the lack of leadership from Mayor Rob Ford (who did not attend the entire duration of the debate) and his inner circle took the debate in a direction that could only be described as school yard antics. However, it should be acknowledged that the lowest point of the marathon debate came from outside the Mayor’s circle when Adam Vaughan, Councillor for Ward 20 (Trinity-Spadina), put forward a childish motion proposing a new tax on vinyl labels to personally attack the Ford’s private business Deco Labels and Tags.

Childishness aside, this debate comes down one fact: Torontonians want subways. A longstanding refrain from the Mayor, his promises of new subways during the previous municipal general election has yet to be realized. Councillors from across the political spectrum must come around to the understanding that transit expansion requires funding.

Central to the debate was the rhetoric of ‘revenue tools’. The Mayor’s inner circle felt this was a misleading statement. To be fair, they are correct. These are taxes. That word has a tendency to scare some. But this is a discussion of either-or. Either the City accepts new methods of taxation or it sits on the status quo: the best transportation system 1980 can buy.

There are a number of options to fund the expansion of the subway system of which the City is in desperate need. However, I want to delve into the option that I believe is most appropriate. That would be the proposal of Sarah Thomson, publisher of Women’s Post and Chair of the Toronto Transit Authority, that Toronto implement a 1% regional sales tax. For what it is worth, Councillor Vaughan put forward his own motion that outlined the implementation of a similar province-wide sales tax of 1%.

Small regional sales taxes are widely used to fund regional transportation plans. For example, Seattle, Phoenix, San Diego, Los Angeles County and Denver have dedicated regional sales taxes. Many of these taxes were brought in by ballot referenda that clearly communicated the funds would be dedicated to build transit, including majority public support for these measures. Recent polling demonstrates there is public support in the GTA. A referendum in conjunction with the 2014 general election could settle this matter once and for all.

Transit-dedicated sales taxes in many United States cities of note had significant negative impact on local retail. Given that the 2008 GST reduction dropped total sales tax levels in the Greater Toronto-Hamilton Region, there is certainly room for an increase of as little as 1%. Such a low rate minimizes the impact on retailers and consumers.

When voting on the matter was decided, Councillor Vaughan’s motion was amended to include the following:

  • “That City Council support the extension of the Bloor Danforth Subway Line from Kennedy Station to the Scarborough Town Centre and north to Sheppard Avenue.” (Proposed by Councillor Glenn De Baermaeker, Ward 36 – Scarborough Centre.)
  • “That City Council request that the North York Relief Line (unfinished subway construction between Sheppard Avenue and Allen Road, and Yonge Street and Sheppard Avenue) be recognized as substantive project priority for Phase 2 Metrolinx funding. (Proposed by Councillor James Pasternak, Ward 10 – York Centre.)

It should be noted, however, that City Council quickly chose to not support the 1% sales tax on the very next vote on a motion by Josh Colle, Councillor for Ward 15 (Eglinton-Lawrence). That motion carried to reject seven different revenue tools, including a sales tax.

At the end of the day, this council dropped the proverbial ball. Torontonians have been waiting far too long for the transit system we so desperately need and deserve. For the time being it appears we will continue to wait.

Toronto Transit Alliance host symposium on the Big Move

Think big. That was the message being put forward by the Toronto Transit Alliance (TTA), their panel of guests and a room full of self-professed transit geeks. On the panel were Bruce McQuaig, President and Chief Executive Officer of Metrolinx, Richard Joy of the Toronto Board of Trade, Mitsy Hunter of Civic Action and Cherise Borda of the Pembina Institute. The Big Move is a transportation plan for the Greater Toronto-Hamilton Area (GTHA) being put forward by the provincial government agency Metrolinx. At 25 years and $50 billion, the Big Move is the first plan of its kind. The potential is here to have a drastically positive impact on the GTHA. Everything from community connection to employment could be impacted. There is only one problem: How are we going to pay for it?

Sarah Thomson, Chair of the TTA and Publisher of Women’s Post, has been adamant about pushing for a 1% regional sales tax. Such a method would get those living and working in the region to share in the cost while raising more than $800 million per year toward municipal revenue. Is this the answer? Possibly.

There are a number of other tools that cannot be discounted. A recent report from Metrolinx advised the region look at a number of option revenue options; chief among them connecting expansion to property tax and tolling roads.

Whatever revenue tool the region chooses to utilize, this is an issue that needs to be resolved. As things stand currently, the region is losing $6 billion annually to gridlock. That number is only expecting to balloon to $15 billion by 2031. But Richard Joy made it clear that we have an opportunity if an early provincial election is called. He is calling on Ontarians to make this the ‘transportation election.’ Put transportation on the map during the coming election cycle. Transportation consistently ranks among health and education as the most important issues to Ontarians. It is time we responded to it as such by calling on the government to create a dedicated stream of funding specific to transportation.

One thing is certain: if governments and citizens do not address this now, the issue will get away from them. Transportation has already become a generational issue. If we act now we can make sure the next generation is not saying the same thing to us. So, as Thomson said to close the symposium, “Tell everyone you know about the need for revenue tools.”

 

For more information on the TTA’s proposals to ‘unlock gridlock,’ take a look at their website and follow them on Twitter at @TransitAlly and #UnlockGridlock.