Throw a rock these days and you’re likely to hit a discussion or news story on transit in the GTA. The rumblings began just over a year ago when Mayor Rob Ford announced the cancellation of his predecessor’s Transit City plan, and now that the budget debate has subsided, the transit issue has exploded to dominate much of the public discourse. And justifiably so. The city and province have made a hot mess of the transit file in the last few decades, and the long-suffering public is understandably frustrated by the inability of any level of government to commit to a transit plan for Toronto and stick to it. That the media and people are talking loudly about transit, recognizing the need to solve an ever-growing economic and environmental problem that can no longer simply be kicked down the road, is the good news.
The bad news is that transit is still plagued by the same old political problems it faced in the 1970s, when the last major subway expansion occurred. The lines drawn between the suburbs and downtown are even more well-defined, and competing interests continue to stall and sabotage construction projects. In recent months, nobody working on the transit issue has appeared to be on the same page or squarely in charge—not the province and Metrolinx, not council and the mayor, not lawyers and consultants, not engineers and the TTC. The latest round of finger pointing and manoeuvering is a reminder that the greatest failure of transit in Toronto is not financing but coming up with a transit plan impervious to politics.
How does a city with limited taxation powers of its own pay for the transit system it needs? For starters, it can look to its own past and to comparable foreign peers for lessons learned and best practices. The 1970s were also the last decade when the TTC had a double-fare system for suburban riders. While the definition and composition of suburbs have changed considerably in 40 years, and the idea of zoned fares might seem politically unviable in an already divided city, it is worth looking at this financing model again as one in a variety of ways to fund an expanding transit system.
A peek at how cities from Vancouver to New York to London pay for their transit systems shows that other jurisdictions get their transit dollar from a variety of sources and levels of government, including fuel and sales taxes, vehicle registration, road tolls, parking, and hydro levies. The city of Toronto can no longer continue to rely solely on user fees, one-time monies from senior levels of government, and the gas tax. We need steady and dedicated funding streams from a variety of sources to pay the massive transit bill we have been putting off for decades.
It’s also worth engaging the younger generation in the transit discussion if the region hopes to keep their talent here. They are the future stakeholders of transit and deserve to be invited to the table and listened to on public projects that will take years to come to fruition. A youth task force on transit with its eyes on the future and a hunger for change could be another key ingredient to sustainable planning in a city too long going in reverse on transit.