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Toronto city council approves 2016 budget

Toronto’s city council approved the 2016 budget Wednesday with little debate or discussion.

The 2016 operating budget of $10.1 billion and the $21 billion 10-year capital budget includes a number of plans for transit, alleviation of traffic congestion, public safety, poverty reduction, and child care subsidies, among other things.

It is rare that council only takes one day to discuss and debate a budget in session — two days were scheduled for this item, with a possibility of a third.

Council addressed the issue of property and residential taxes before approving the budget itself, two items that are usually adopted together as a package. Deputy city manager, Giuliana Carbone, said the 2016 budget was a challenge. City staff had to balance instruction about keeping spending low while committing to a number of long-term capital projects.

“Those are not compatible,” he said.

Taxes are always a controversial topic — certain city councillors felt like the suggested overall tax increase of 0.88 per cent was too low, while others recommended the city not increase taxes at all. Instead, they suggested, the city should consider other forms of revenue.

Council eventually adopted the original recommendation, which included the following:

Property tax increase: 1.3 per cent
Non-residential tax increase: o.43 per cent
Overall tax increase: o.88 per cent

An additional 0.6 per cent was also added on for the development of the Scarborough subway and 0.78 per cent for residential properties, bringing the total tax increase to 2.69 per cent. The tax increase is well below the rate of inflation, and remains the lowest residential property taxes in the GTHA.

The budget greatly depends on municipal land transfer taxes. The city is making an assumption that the tax will not be reduced or softened — essentially that it will hold constant. If the municipal land transfer tax wavers, Toronto could be left with a large hole in the budget going forward.

“At this point, we are able to expand the service level in 2016. Going forward, unless we have an increase in land transfer tax, that clearly becomes unsustainable” said Peter Wallace, city manager for Toronto, to council Wednesday afternoon.

The budget itself includes $8 million geared towards poverty reduction, $5.5 million to support the Mayor’s Task Force on Community Housing, and funds to help with improved streetcar reliability, Sunday morning subway service, and the hiring of additional seasonal inspectors of municipal construction to alleviate traffic disruption. It also includes $1.25 million for child-care subsidies, which was not in the original recommendations.

Screenshot 2016-02-18 14.19.44
Toronto city budget presentation

At the end of the day, council didn’t really consider changing or altering the budget, which is why it only took a day to pass. Important projects like the Yonge Relief Line, SmartTrack, and the revitalization of Toronto Community Housing are not being funded this year, despite the city’s insistence of their priority status. The budget is a very political process, and the mayor couldn’t be seen supporting a tax increase that was higher then inflation, despite the blatantly obvious positive effects it would have, because a) the status of the City’s labour negotiations and b) it’s not popular for re-election.

Council’s decision to not match tax increases to inflation will, ultimately, come back to haunt them. If taxes don’t match up to the rate of inflation, there will always be debt. In fact, the gap will continue to grow. So, Toronto needs to make a decision. It won’t be long until the budget planning process happens all over again. Let’s not make the same mistake next year — as the city manager said, Toronto just can’t afford to.

Ontario raises over $700 million for green transit

Tuesday, the Ontario government announced $750 million in funding (in the form of a green bond) for environmentally friendly, low-carbon infrastructure projects, the majority of which is dedicated to transit in the GHTA.

Proceeds from the bond will help fund eight projects that will improve transit, education, health care, and employment across the province.

“Effectively combating climate change requires smart investments in environmentally friendly infrastructure projects such as improving energy efficiency and building more public transit,” Glen Murray, Minister of the Environment and Climate Change, said in a statement. “Green bonds give all Ontarians the opportunity to invest in climate actions that will protect the environment, strengthen the economy and improve everyday life.”

The funding will go to the following projects:

  1. Eglinton Crosstown LRT: $402 million for things like constructing electric powered transit vehicles that produce near-zero emissions.
  2. York VivaNEXT Bus Rapid Transit Expansion: $100 million to improve access to public transit.
  3. Go Transit Regional Express Rail: $200 million to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions by using electricity instead of diesel in trains. The funds will also be used for LEED gold-level certification for all Regional Express Rail stations and facilities

Green bonds were pioneered by the World Bank in 2008 as a tool to raise capital for projects with environmental benefits. The government guarantees a return for each investor. The maturity date for paying back the bond is also quite slow — Ontario priced a $750 million bond with a maturity date of January 27, 2023.

This is the second green bond Ontario has issued. The first bond was issued on Oct. 2, 2014 in the amount of $500 million.

Ontario is the first province in Canada to issue green bonds.

Mayor Tory creates a win for Scarborough transit

When it comes to transit in Toronto the Scarborough subway line has been the most contentious issue over the past decade. Ridership numbers barely supported the need for a four stop subway, and the lack of transit further west left a gap in the transit map that shamed many.

The plan brought forward today by Mayor Tory and Chief Planner Jennifer Keesmaat is one that will fill in the transit gap west of McCowan. Not only does it rely on well thought out research by transit experts in the form of the Eglinton LRT extension east to the University of Toronto Scarborough Campus, but it also allows a high-speed subway extension from Kennedy to the Scarborough Town Centre.

Creating a one-stop subway line will free up funds (subway stations cost approximately $200 million) to allow the addition of a 17-stop extension of the Eglinton LRT east to connect five high-priority neighbourhoods in Scarborough.

The new plan will bring rail transit to 64,000 people in Scarborough who currently aren’t using it. And the plan unites those wanting subway with those wanting LRT on council. It is a transit plan founded on informed, good judgement from transit experts that was designed to build consensus rather than create division at city hall.
With this plan for Scarborough transit, Mayor Tory might accomplish what no other mayor in the past few decades has — unite the city around a transit plan that everyone can support. His plan is the right, reasonable, and responsible approach to building the transit Toronto so desperately needs.

Dealing with sprawl in the Greenbelt, the Crombie Report

“Sprawl begets sprawl,” director of engagement and digital strategy, Megan Hunter from Friends of the Greenbelt said when questioned about the immediate concerns of transit, housing, and community within the Greater Toronto Area.

Urban sprawl is a concern that has persisted in Toronto and its surrounding areas for generations, and the need for sustainable transit planning is imperative. Luckily, the province is taking charge  through a careful assessment of four land protection plans including the the Niagara Escarpment Plan (1985), the Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Plan (2001), the Greenbelt Plan (2005) and the Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe (2006) to develop a better planning strategy for transit and community planning.

In December 2015, the government report entitled Planning for Health, Prosperity and Growth in the Greater Golden Horseshoe 2015-2041 was released. The report was led by former Toronto Mayor David Crombie, and it has popularly been dubbed the Crombie Report since then. This 171-page document has 87 recommendations on how to protect important lands and plan future communities, while considering important factors such as transit and housing. The report predicts the population across the GHTA will increase from nine million residents to 13.5 million by 2041. In order to create more high-density and transit savvy communities, planning strategies must be implemented to ensure sustainable building practices.

The Friends of a Greenbelt is a non-profit foundation that has been advocating on behalf of the Greenbelt since its inception in 2005. “The report achieves the vision for growth planning,” Hunter said. “It preserves ecological areas and prime farmlands and it doesn’t entertain dividing parcels of land or making the Greenbelt smaller.”

The report targets specific objectives to help implement better transit strategies including intensification and density building, developing infrastructure near transit corridors, and abolishing leap-frog developments.

The Crombie Report focused heavily on the importance of intensification and density targets in the GHTA. Currently, the minimum requirement for developers is to meet a 40 per cent intensification target when building. This indicates that 40 per cent of building in a specific municipality must have mixed-use development (that focuses on building upwards) to help create high-density communities. Five out of 15 municipalities on the outliers of the region under the Greenbelt do not currently follow the trend, including the Kawartha Lakes, Simcoe, Wellington, Brant, and Holimand counties.

The report emphasizes that 60 per cent intensification would be more effective for sustainable transit planning. It also advocates to use incentives to ensure municipalities follow the minimum requirements. “Intensification targets aren’t being met yet. These communities have been allowed to do that when they don’t need to do that,” Hunter said.

In addition to intensification targets, the report also touches upon density requirements. As of 2006, according to the Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe, the municipality must ensure developers build for 50 people and jobs per hectare. Currently, eight regions do not comply with these standards. Despite this, the Crombie Report suggests raising the density requirement to 60 people and jobs per hectare. Interestingly, Toronto exceeds the standard and meets 100 per cent intensification and density targets.

The same standards can be applied to transit. Research from the Crombie report indicate that running a bus needs about 50 people and jobs per hectare to avoid putting strenuous financial strain on each municipality.

“Density looks different for different types of communities. Planning can create a local character that matches commercial and residential needs,” Hunter said.

Building around transit corridors and focusing on density and intensification targets also avoids “leap-frog development”. This type of building causes housing projects to pop up along the Greenbelt boundaries that leave residents isolated, without any alternatives to transportation. It furthers sprawl and draws away from sustainable development practices.

By implementing mixed-use neighbourhoods, building high-density and well planned communities, and building near transit corridors, the Greenbelt can continue to exist and transit can become the primary mode of transportation in the GHTA.

“The whole idea with the big house with three cars has a lot of repercussions that weren’t considered,” Hunter said. “It isn’t good for health, you don’t have a cultural, vital community and there is a lack of transit. People are starting to see that.”

Trudeaumania takes over Toronto

Photo taken by Katherine DeClerq

Trudeaumania is real.

Wednesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau paid a visit to Toronto’s city hall to meet with Mayor John Tory. It was the first time in 18 years a prime minister visited the institution, but that wasn’t why people were so excited. It was because they had the opportunity to get close to the celebrity politician.

The media struggled to stay up with Trudeau and Tory as they walked from Queen St. up to city hall. People sporting bright unicorn Trudeau sweatshirts were running through the crowd, trying to get a selfie with the sexiest head of state in the world, while scores of young women stood in his path screaming his name.

One cameraman made a wrong step and slipped on the skating rink in the square. Reporters ran — and I mean sprinted — around the crowd to get better view of the prime minister, just to run face-first into a father holding his kid, trying to get a glimpse of the people at the center of the spectacle. Personally, I was elbowed in the head and shoved into a snow bank.

“Oh my god, it’s Justin Trudeau!” screamed two jumping girls as he made his way into city hall. I have to say I was impressed with the strength of the prime minister’s security force, dawning the stereotypical sunglasses and earpieces, trying to keep everyone at bay. What a job.

After the screaming died down and the swooning stopped, the prime minister got up on stage with the mayor and opened his mouth to talk. And talk he did — although he didn’t say much. In fact, he hardly said anything worthwhile.

It was obvious the prime minister didn’t want to make any promises during this visit, despite the mayor’s attempts to indicate otherwise. There was no mention of a commitment to the SmartTrack or the Yonge Relief Line, and he didn’t even touch on the $2.6 billion promised to the city for transit.

“We are in the middle of pre-budget consultations.” Trudeau said when a reporter asked when we could expect a cheque for infrastructure. “The infrastructure investments that the mayor is counting on are not a problem, they are part of the solution that Canada is facing.” What that means…no one knows.

Really, the only thing Justin Trudeau reiterated was his government’s pledge of $60 billion over the next 10 years towards green and social infrastructure, and public transit. There was no elaboration. Where will the money go? What are the government’s priorities? All are excellent questions that remained unanswered. The rest of the 10-minute question period included the Prime Minister dancing masterfully around each media inquiry, citing what seemed to be election promises and vaguely mentioning the Liberal’s commitment to job creation, economic growth, and international relations.

But, that didn’t matter to the fans. As one grown man standing behind me in the crowd said: “Wow, his hair really is great!”

And I guess that’s all that mattered.

Photo by Katherine DeClerq

Is SmartTrack a quick solution to a long-term problem?

The plan for SmartTrack tackles the need for a fast track solution to congestion in Toronto. The goal is to provide a quick solution for the hundreds of thousands of people trying to get across the city on a daily basis.

The key to SmartTrack is that is uses existing Regional Express Rail (RER) lines to provide service within Toronto, from Stouffville to the Airport Corporate Centre. Currently, the plan includes 22 new stations and is projected to be ready within seven years. The line will take over two existing GO routes and 90 per cent of its track will be on existing GO transit lines primarily the Kitchener and Stouffville Go lines.

SmartTrack is actively being pursued by the City of Toronto to help with congestion on the Yonge line by providing alternative options. Jennifer Keesmaat, chief planner and executive director for the City of Toronto, says in video for the relief line campaign: “In order for the network to be effective, we need to increase choice.” The Toronto Transit Commission currently has 535 million customers annually and this number is steadily growing. The hope is that by re-purposing exiting GO express lines SmartTrack  will provide relief for the over-capacity issue on the Yonge line and relocate 35 per cent of streetcar customers, clearing the way for a smoother commute.

But SmartTrack is still in the planning stages. Access to the airport corporate centre is essential for Torontonians who utilize transit, yet the cost of accessibility to this area could run extremely high. There is limited space for a transit station at the airport centre and steps are being taken to ensure the best plan is developed for this specific location. Metrolinx has approved a plan to extend the Eglinton Crosstown LRT from Mount Dennis to the centre. The City of Toronto has yet to approve this plan.

The city is conducting a feasibility review of the Eglinton Avenue West Corridor and waiting for the results of ridership modelling to further aide the analysis. The modelling is being conducted by the University of Toronto. The city has also met with Metrolinx over the last week to discuss the new stations across the RER network.

SmartTrack provides Torontonians with choice.  Is it the right choice? Mayor Tory , the city of Toronto and Metrolinx  are waiting for the results of these studies. With all wanting to deliver the right transit, not only for Toronto but for the entire region.

Woman of the Week: Anne Golden

Sitting in a Starbucks drinking a decaf flat white, Anne Golden recalls how she was “in the vanguard of women going on to have professional careers.”

Golden is an academic down to the bone. “I can’t just dive into a subject without understanding context,” she explained to Women’s Post in an interview. Her background is in American history, a subject she studied at the University of Toronto for both her BA and PhD.

Her own history is a bit of a roller-coaster, and Golden tells it with a hint of dry humour, almost as if she herself can’t believe how much she has done in her lifetime. She is now a distinguished visiting scholar and special advisor at Ryerson University, where she teaches a class on successful cities in the 21st century. She also holds a position on the board of Metrolinx and participates in a number of panels and task forces relating to issues of city building and transit.

Her career had a rocky start. First, she was discouraged from pursuing a career in law after one of the only women in the field told her she would never be allowed to work on any real cases. Then, she was convinced to give up a promotion in the department of history because she was married to a dentist and didn’t need the money.

“The interesting part was I said I understood. I didn’t say ‘injustice’,” Golden said. “I wasn’t bitter or angry. I just said [the other candidate] just got married and needs the job, and I was married to someone who was already a professional and I would survive. I mean, today, that would be cause for protest, but it wasn’t for me.”

From there, Golden took every opportunity she could get her hands on. She was always interested in politics, so when David Crombie ran for mayor in 1972, she was one of the first people to call and volunteer. Golden eventually coordinated the campaign that led to Crombie’s victory.

“New progressive ideas were coming on stream. There was an understanding that there was a new vision for cities beyond expressways, beyond sprawl, beyond imitating the American example.”

The jump from history major to politician, philanthropist, city builder, and transit aficionado was a relatively easy one for Golden. She describes it as “a result of very good luck,” but, in truth, she is an avid learner, ready to jump into any position that was offered to her.

As a board member at Metrolinx, Golden reads about 500-1,000 pages worth of contracts and files before every meeting. She also reads a daily roundup called a “Media Analysis Report”, which includes every single article or radio report published in Canada that relates to transit. Board members then go back and forth, discussing the issues and trying to find solutions to various problems. “I always felt that if the public saw how hard we worked they would be less cynical,” she said.

Some may argue that this cynicism comes from years of failed transit promises and miscommunications between politicians and transit agencies. According to Golden, the main reason for this lack of collaboration is that each institution is protective of its own turf.

“Where you stand is dictated by where you sit,” she said frankly. “If you are sitting in the [Toronto Transit Commission] building at Yonge and Davisville, you may see things differently than if you are sitting in Metrolinx on Front St. having to look at the whole region.”

In addition to city council, the TTC, and Metrolinx, there are about 160 organizations in the Greater Toronto Area dedicated to city issues, including transit. With so much competition, Golden says it is important to stress what makes each group unique. If an organization fails to do so, it may lose its voice and therefore its chance at being part of the formal discussion. She also suggests merging smaller organizations to gain legitimacy.

Despite the many interests of each decision-making power in Toronto, Golden acknowledges that there are good people running each of them, and that a lot of collaboration is happening to ensure the city gets the best possible transit system.

Golden is currently reading Margaret MacMillan’s History People and The Legacy of Grazia dei Rossi by Jacqueline Park.

Stephen Harper announces $2.6 billion in funding for SmartTrack Plan

It’s been a great day for the city of Toronto as Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced his plans today to provide more than $2 billion in funding from the federal government for up to one-third of the cost for Toronto’s SmartTrack transit line.

The announcement was made by Harper alongside Finance Minister Joe Oliver and Toronto Mayor John Tory today. The Smart Track, as stated on Mayor John Tory’s website, will provide service from the Airport Corporate Centre in the west, southeast to Union Station and northeast to Markham in the east. It will have 22 new station stops and five interchanges with the TTC rapid transit network.

Oliver said the funding is all about making Toronto a liveable place for citizens and efficient place for job-creating businesses at today’s announcement, which took place at the Toronto Transit Commission’s Hillcrest Complex in midtown Toronto.

That budget included $750 million over two years, starting in 2017-18, and $1 billion for each year after, for a new public transit fund to help cities fight traffic congestion by encouraging public-private infrastructure projects.

Andy Byford: Serving The Rocket Through Transformative Change

Whether you’ve seen him on the subway with other fellow passengers, or heard about his five-year corporate plan to modernize the Toronto Transit Commission’s (TTC) operations, it’s evident that Chief Executive Officer, Andy Byford, is bringing significant change to the TTC. However, there is much more about Mr. Byford than meets the eye. In a mere three years, he has managed to overhaul his senior leadership team and has  brought some crucial change to the TTC.Mr. Byford has replaced his Chief Executive Officer (CEO) with Gary Shortt, brought in Mike Palmer as the Deputy CEO for Subway Operations, Chris Upfold as the Deputy CEO, Rick Leary as Chief Service Delivery Officer and Susan Reed Tanaka as the acting Chief of Engineering, Construction and Expansion.

Mr. Byford has not neglected the importance of bringing women into leadership roles. While there are three out women of the 11 member, including Vice-Chair, Maureen Adamson, Councillor Shelly Carroll, and Anju Virmani. The TTC executive team has Chief of Staff, Joan Taylor, Chief People Officer, ‎Gemma Piemontese, and Chief Capital Officer,  Susan Reed Tanaka.

 

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Service has also improved significantly since Andy Byford became CEO in 2011. Performance measures show that punctuality and device availability are at an impressive 90+%.  Steps were taken to refurbish rundown subway washrooms, step up subway-car cleaning and improve announcements about service disruptions.

Andy Byford’s other efforts to complete expansion projects, improve customer service, and modernize the outdated system cannot be overlooked. In 2013, Byford introduced six, new Group Station Managers (GSMs) as part of his continuing commitment to modernize and transform the TTC. And just last year,  debit and credit machines were introduced to 69 stations, allowing passengers to buy tickets and passes the more convenient way.

Byford’s dedication and expertise has shaped the TTC into a much more efficient transit system. He is slowly changing the culture at the TTC, building confidence in his team, and tackling the thousands of changes needed to create better process at every level.

Mr. Byford is slowly turning the biggest transit system  in Canada around. The cultural transformation he promised is  happening, service has improved significantly, and despite the lack of transit infrastructure  and funding (4 million from this years budget) Byford has managed to keep Toronto moving with equipment that is long overdue for replacement.

His mission is clear; to have a transit system that makes Toronto proud and despite the lack of investment, the barrage of political attacks that come with his position, and the terrible mess he inherited, Byford just may pull this off.  We can only hope the politicians will leave him alone long enough to bring about the transformation the TTC so desperately needs.

Plowing transit funding forward

I have a lapel button with the words “I’ll pay for it” transposed over a subway map. It’s a reminder of all the people I’ve met over the years (while campaigning for dedicated transit funding) who were willing to pay for transit expansion as long as they knew their funds would go directly to it.

Last week Toronto City Council announced it would have to borrow $86 Million to cover cuts the Province made to social housing back in 2013. Mayor Tory had hoped to convince the province to reverse their decision but they wouldn’t, or, to be more accurate, they couldn’t reverse their decision because they too are having revenue issues.

The critics have attacked Mayor Tory on his decision to borrow the funds needed to cover this shortfall to social housing. But we can’t expect Mayor Tory or City Council to address the huge revenue problem Toronto has, when we as a city refuse to support candidates who advocate for more funding.

It’s time to deal in facts, and the very basic fact for Toronto is that there isn’t enough revenue to provide, or expand on, the services the city currently has to fulfill. From housing to transit Toronto doesn’t have the funds we need to provide the services and the anti-tax attitude dominating every issue has limited our ability to keep up with other growing cities. There are two questions we have to ask : Do you want more transit in the city? Do you want to care for those in need? Politicians who even suggest Toronto use dedicated revenue tools common in other cities, get swept aside for those who shout “no tax increases.” Our civic leaders can’t invest in our city because we refuse to give them the support to do it.

It’s time to change. Time to come together as a city and begin the work required to educate our residents on the crisis Toronto will have if we don’t act today.  We have elected someone who may turn out to be one of the best Mayor’s Toronto has ever had, he’s a consensus builder, a centrist not shackled to the far left or right. But we can’t expect Mayor Tory to deliver the services Toronto needs if we don’t provide him the funds to do it.

When it comes to revenue tools there are a number of good ideas that the Board of Trade, Metrolinx and the Transit Alliance have endorsed. Metrolinx suggested a basket of revenue tools that included a 1% sales tax, a 5 cent gas tax, parking levies, and an increase in development charges. Other North American cities have used toll roads, and the Toronto Act gives our city the ability to toll the Gardiner Expressway and Don Valley Parkway, which were downloaded to Toronto over 20 years ago.

It’s time for each one of us to rip away the rigid anti-tax attitude that has settled over Toronto, and held us back from building an effective and vibrant city. The first step is to envision what the city might be like if we invested in transit. Think of the jobs this kind of investment would bring, and of the future we would be building not just for today but for our children. The next step is to work actively to dispel the myth that city hall is rolling in funds with the reality – Toronto has a revenue problem that must be solved. If you would like to help, please join the Transit Alliance campaign for dedicated transit funding – you can become a member, volunteer, and share our posts on your social media wall. Forward. Together.