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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:

Over 300 people ask ‘do we live in a green city?’

On Jan. 25, over 300 people entered the Bram and Bluma Appel Salon at the Toronto Reference Library to discuss and debate this question: How do we design, plan, and build a green city?

The Transit Alliance, a non-political organization that works with those in the transit and infrastructure industry, hosted its first Green Cities breakfast Wednesday to discuss the need for greater transit, greener building, and an overall more liveable city design. Toronto Chief Planner Jennifer Keesmaat was the keynote speaker. “As humans, we have the ability to shape our habitat,” she said. “The model is not sustainable.”

During her speech, Keesmaat announced the King Street Pilot Project, which hopes to help unlock gridlock in a particularly messy and busy corridor. This is the first time Keesmaat has, in an official capacity, mentioned the project. Further details will be released on Feb. 13.

While guests enjoyed their coffee and muffins, Bruce McGuaig, CEO of Metrolinx; Dr. Dianne Saxe, Ontario Environment Commissioner; David Paterson, VP Corporate and Environmental Affairs for GM Canada; and, Mary Margaret McMahon, Toronto City Councillor walked on stage to take part in a panel discussion on transit. While a variety of topics were introduced, the common denominator seemed to be this: the Golden Horseshoe needs more. The city needs more transit, more funding, and more emphasis on liveability in design.

The second panel of the morning focused on green building, both commercial and residential. The panel consisted of Mike Schreiner, Leader of the Ontario Green Party; Amy Erixon, Principal and Managing Director Investments at Avison Young; Christopher Wein, President of Great Gulf; and, Andrew Bowerbank, Global Director, Sustainable Building Services at EllisDon. Education was a big topic of interest. Building green is only slightly more expensive, but the benefits and the return to the homebuyer is much greater. Everyone agreed that educating the public as to the real costs of building green is critical to a low-carbon community. The question of the panel: Why would we ever NOT build a LEED-certified or Net-Zero home anymore?

Here are a few select photos from Green Cities:

[Best_Wordpress_Gallery id=”5″ gal_title=”Green Cities Highlights”]

Gender equity budget tool is a win for women’s rights in Toronto

Last weekend, the world watched in awe as women around the globe marched in support of gender equality.

But, change begins on a local level, and requires leaders, real decision-makers and politicians, to step up. Cue: Ward 23 Councillor Wong-Tam. She recently led a motion that was passed at Toronto city council to embrace gender equity perspective tools in their budget process. Wong-Tam also contributed to educating women at a gender equity town hall last week, and spoke at the Women’s March in Toronto on Saturday, attended by over 50,000 women.

“The march was much larger than anyone anticipated and it was very peaceful,” Wong-Tam says. “I thought the focus was going to be on the U.S., but clearly Canadian women wanted to be heard and seen here as well.” Wong-Tam spoke up on Saturday about how $91 million worth of budget cuts have impacted women specifically in Toronto, ranging from shelters to childcare subsidies.

With 18,000 women and children currently sitting on the housing waitlist, Wong-Tam points out that women are disproportionately affected by the annual budget process when it comes to transit, housing, and daycare subsidies. “We already have women’s shelters at capacity, not just in Toronto but across the country,” Wong-Tam says. “Women and children that are trying to flee violent households are turned away. Where are they going to go?”

Luckily, a gender equity perspective as a part of the annual budget-making process would help ensure that women received more support and protection. “The proposition to create a gender responsive budget is not to create a separate budget for women, but to create a budget that has equal benefit to men and women,” Wong-Tam says. “We achieve that by creating a set of questions that policymakers would use.”

Creating a gender responsive budget is a concept that is already being used by over 150 cities around the world. According to Wong-Tam, creating a gender equity tool in Toronto would begin by developing a complex series of questions for policymakers. “We need to start off by compiling aggregated data to understand who uses what services and budget allocations,” Wong-Tam says. “We would then ask service users if their needs are being met. If most are women using that particular service, we then recognize that.”

Creating a gender equity tool for the budget process is a dynamic solution to include people with various intersecting identities. “Women also come from a range of groups and vulnerable populations facing equity issues of their own, including racialized women, women with disabilities, women who are seniors,” Wong-Tam says. “The intersectional lens allows us to look at the full picture. We want to create a single budget that encompasses everyone.”

Toronto city staff is not prepared to enact gender equity tools within the 2017 budget, but Wong-Tam has hope for the following year. The councillor has created a task force full of service providers and female economists to help financial city staff create a gender equity tool for 2018 — and she vows to make it happen.

“I’m encouraged because there are so many young women who were energized around this issue. What I want to say to them is that we need to find a path from protest to power. The march on Washington has been ongoing asking and demanding for certain rights. The energy that I personally witnessed can fizzle out if we don’t keep organizing. We can be active around protests, but the only way to change the system is to hold the government accountable and keep organizing.”

Wong-Tam believes the way to finding equality for women is to act, and Women’s Post agrees. Vote for women, vote for gender equity, and fight for women’s rights using the power of the law and political will. If anything, the women’s march on Saturday showed that the world is on the precipice of change, so engage! Follow Councillor Wong-Tam’s lead and make Toronto a better place for future women and girls.

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.

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.

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.

Why isn’t Metrolinx developing above Crosstown’s Avenue station?

Developing alongside transit lines and creating urban density is a necessity when building a growing city. It ensures that transit corridors will be used and simultaneously provides people with much-needed places to live in neighbourhoods with a strong sense of community. It is a win-win right? For Metrolinx and Terranata Developments Inc., it appears not.

Metrolinx recently rejected Terranata’s application to build a 15-story condominium over top of the Avenue Rd. station on the Eglinton Crosstown LRT line. Terranata was willing to offer millions up front to Metrolinx and work flexibly with the province to build both the station and development. However, Metrolinx is focused on transit-oriented development (TOD), which requires certain agreements to be put in place before approving an application.

According to Metrolinx, the Terranata proposal didn’t meet those transit-oriented guidelines for development along the transit corridor. For example, the development must have the support of the local municipality, should have no impacts on the delivery time of the project, and have no negative impacts on the budget of the project. The proposal by Terranata would have benefited the project’s budget, but it didn’t comply with the other two guidelines, specifically it would have delayed the building of the project by at least a year.

Terranata asked to build above the LRT line last spring, but the shovels hit the ground for the Crosstown LRT in early March. Though Terranata applied for the air space above the station before the station began construction, obtaining municipal support for the development had yet to happen. It didn’t help that Terranata wanted to build 15 stories high, which exceeded zoning bylaws. Terranata has since appealed the decision to the Ontario Municipal Board (not an organization with the fastest track record). From Metrolinx’s perspective, construction of the development could potentially delay the scheduling impacts on the delivery of the LRT. Terranata, on the other hand, wanted to give Metrolinx access to their property as a construction staging area, which may have benefited both parties.

Metrolinx remains interested in pairing transit construction with city development, but it isn’t their central focus. For the transit agency, it is more important to get the line built and promote commercial development and infrastructure near the transit corridors. Metrolinx has approved proposals by the Country Wide Homes at Crosstown’s Leaside Station and Build Toronto at Crosstown Eglinton Station. Though these projects were approved by Metrolinx because they fit the criteria, perhaps Terranata should have been given the opportunity to at least gain approval on part of the city.

It is clear that the merging of city building and transit has its challenges in Toronto. Toronto needs to re-evaluate how it builds. Soon, the city will no longer be able to build outwards, and will have to develop high-rise building to compensate for the growing population. Planning for the future is imperative, and building above transit corridors or subway stations is exactly what the city should be considering. And it can work — it’s being done now with the Rail Deck Park.

The case of Terranata has been in the media a lot lately, which is causing a lot of people to wonder about the hoops developers must jump through to gain approval.  City planners and Metrolinx have expressed a commitment to development and density, but when will they plan on acting on it? It’s all still in the air.