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Tackling Public Transit, With or Without Mayor Rob Ford

At the first Feeling Congested panel, even some of the mayor's allies seemed to agree that the City may need to tax and toll its way to better transit.

It struck me, sitting in the audience for the first panel discussion related to the City’s Feeling Congested public-transit campaign on Monday night, that any similar event in the future needs to leave an empty spot on the panel—sort of like when people leave an empty seat for Elijah at a Passover seder, except this empty seat would be for Mayor Rob Ford. The door is always open to him, an invitation extended. But if the short tradition of this transit discussion holds, he will never make an appearance.

Or rather, he will be there in spirit.

The mayor’s presence hung heavily and awkwardly over every question asked and every answer given on Monday. Metrolinx’s Big Move needs leadership, someone to champion it as a vital step towards dealing with the congestion that’s disrupting the entire GTA’s economic and social well-being. To have the mayor of the biggest municipality in the region fundamentally disagreeing with the idea of new revenue tools and obstinately absenting himself from the debate establishes a significant obstacle—a major road block, if you will. It’s the exact opposite of leadership. It’s a hindrance.

However, judging from the tone of the discussion, the mayor’s transit intransigence can be overcome.

The panelists on stage were not people Mayor Ford can easily dismiss as the usual left-wing, downtown-elite suspects. There was Carol Wilding, president and CEO of the Toronto Region Board of Trade. Also speaking was John Howe, vice president of investment strategy and project evaluation at Metrolinx. Two of the mayor’s council allies and executive committee members were also present: Councillor Michael Thompson (Ward 37, Scarborough Centre), chair of the Economic Development Committee, and Councillor Peter Milczyn (Ward 5, Etobicoke-Lakeshore), chair of the Planning and Growth Committee and a TTC commissioner.

Along with the City’s chief planner, Jennifer Keesmaat, and the evening’s keynote speaker, former Vancouver chief planner Larry Beasley, all acknowledged the pressing need for the kind of large-scale transit investment the Big Move proposes. Everyone also agreed that funding for the plan has to come from every stakeholder involved. There is no magic solution. As Beasley pointed out in his speech, you either pay for a transit system or you don’t have a transit system.

Perhaps the most telling moment of the evening came when Councillor Thompson, under very pointed questioning from the event’s moderator, Metro Morning’s Matt Galloway, suggested that his own presence on the stage for the debate signaled that he wasn’t aligned with the mayor on the transit file. Even further, the councillor admitted outright that the mayor’s push to rescind the vehicle-registration tax had been a mistake. For his part, Councillor Milczyn insisted that city council would approve a transit plan with the requisite funding tools. Even without the mayor, Galloway inquired? Milczyn said he thinks so.

While everyone agreed that the public could get on board with the idea of paying more taxes, fees, and tolls for transit expansion (an assertion backed up by a recent Forum Research poll published in the Toronto Star over the weekend), any revenue, they decided, would have to be dedicated directly to transit. Councillor Milczyn suggested the reason the city’s vehicle-registration and land-transfer taxes are both so reviled is that the proceeds have always ended up in general revenue—the “black hole of City Hall,” he called it. (I would argue that the City does have other needs, aside from transit, that have to be paid for.)

The problem right now is that a large number of people in the GTA haven’t the slightest idea what the Big Move is and what it’s proposing to do. So, a dedicated tax to what? That could be seen as a PR failure on the part of the province and Metrolinx. On the other hand, as Hilary Holden, a transportation consultant, pointed out on Twitter: “Is public awareness of the Big Move really a measure of success for Metrolinx? Is it not really written for practitioners?” In other words: hey Metrolinx, get your ducks in a row first and then go to the public with a fully realized plan and funding options.

There’s also the concern that while the Big Move is, well, big, it may not be ambitious enough. Oakville mayor Rob Burton wondered about this in an interview with the Toronto Star last week. “Good news, everybody,” he said. “If you’ll spend $50 billion over the next 25 years I promise traffic congestion and transit won’t get any worse…I’m not saying [the Big Move] is not the best we can do. I’m asking: Is this all there is? Can we really not make it better?” And that’s before we even get to the discussion of operating costs to run all this new, wonderful transit.

After decades of talking about it but rarely following up, maybe we’re still low-balling ourselves, spending just enough money to keep the region running at a standstill. Is the public really willing to fork over more money simply to make sure things don’t get any worse?

For all the justifiable concern expressed by both participants and audience members during Monday’s panel, Keesmaat did point out something hopeful: this was a conversation we weren’t even having three years ago. Which is very true. What’s more, much of Monday’s discussion had to do with multi-modal travel. It sounded like attendees weren’t interested in a war on the car so much as they were interested in a levelling of the transportation playing field, with driving simply another, less important way for people to get around.

Heady stuff, indeed: an adult conversation about positive, healthy city building—and one that Mayor Ford seems absolutely determined not to contribute a thing to. Maybe it’s best he continues to ignore it. He doesn’t really have anything constructive to say.


  • Torontopoly

    Invest more in regional rail as a start. More lines, more trains, more stops. It still baffles me that we have a line going through Summerhill that has not been tapped into when that line was always intended to relieve Union. In addition to this, why are we not taking more advantage of the Airport Express? They could have easily added a few inner city stops, but I guess that helps too many poor people and costs rich businessmen a few precious minutes.

    • Kate Roberts

      I agree on your point about the Airport express, it seems that whole thing just got rushed in and out of planning stages in order to make the 2015 Pan Am games deadline without a good deal of thought on how that line could be integrated into the current transit infrastructure as a sort of west bound DRL – it could link up to the soon to be Eglinton cross town LRT, maybe to St.Clair west as well, then have a west bound hub made out of the current Dundas west station and have it continue south to St. Andrew Station, also opening up that station as more of a hub that could take some of the pressure off of Union Station. More over the Air Rail link is using Diesel trains bought from a Japanese vendor, when we have the technology for Electric trains from our own homegrown Bombardier – very poor planning indeed on that one…

      • Kate Roberts

        I believe Torontoist looked into the proposal I just reference in my post too, trying to find a link back to it for future visual reference…

      • Brent

        Rushed? The thing has been on the books since the Chretien era (2001). Deliberate decision NOT to integrate with current transit infrastructure, but rather to build it as a dedicated express route for airport travelers (with a fare to match). Even the mid-route stops at Bloor and Lawrence were added grudgingly well into the design process.

        • Brent

          There were other plans that WOULD have integrated with the broader transit network (Google “SmartRide LRT”), going back to 2002 (pre-dating Transit City). That plan recognized that there is a huge market for commuting travel in the airport area — commuters that would not ride a gold-plated service from Union but would be more than happy to ride a slightly slower service integrated with the TTC network. (This is borne out by traffic growth on the westbound Gardiner and northbound 427 10 years later — people that have moved into new downtown condos while working in northeast Mississauga and other 905 industrial areas.)

    • iSkyscraper

      It wasn’t rushed – I was working on engineering drawings for the airport expansion in 1999 that were being designed to accommodate the train. The problem, like all transit in Toronto, is that no one was willing to fund it. Sure, it could have been a pure GO extension, like the way the Boston commuter trains were built to reach Providence airport or the way Denver is building its commuter trains out to DIA. But to get the private sector to fund it the whole thing had to be set up a la Heathrow Express. Which of course didn’t work in a small city like Toronto, which led it being taken over by GO after years of delays but with the DNA of how it started as an express. Everyone loses. I have no problem with it being diesel (most airport commuter trains are, get over it) but it was stupid not to integrate it as part of GO. No one is going to ride a $30 train to the airport. Not when the rest of the continent charges $3 to $15. I love Toronto, but man this city is piss-poor cheap when it comes to public realm investment.

      • Dwight J. Seufert

        “No one is going to ride a $30 train…” – good – hopefully then they will realise they’re above what the market is willing to pay, & slash the rate accordingly. Once it’s built, if ridership is low they won’t have much choice.

  • audience

    what was telling is that milczyn/thompson – i forget who – conceded that they might consider a parking levy. that’s the same screw you tool the council right tried to deploy during the transit debate at the last moment. i don’t think they’ve actually come that far.

    • OgtheDIm

      The parking levy was Del Grande’s idea; it would have required further study to implement so would have pushed the whole transit debate down another year. Ford eventually voted against it, which caused Del Grande to go all green eyed monster.

  • estta

    [T]his was a conversation we weren’t even having three years ago.

    Three years ago, weren’t we well on our way to Transit City? Before it got crushed by Ford?

  • dfsdf

    enough of this. we should have been discussing this 30 years ago. every city with a functioning transit system has some sort of toll, property tax, or much more expensive fares than we do (look at the price to take the london underground). rapid transit in this city is grossly inadequate. GET ON WITH IT.

    • tyrannosaurus_rek

      Nonsense! Cancel everything and start a new round of discussions! Order another environmental assessment! On everything!

  • iSkyscraper

    I had a thought today. Given that we are way behind, we may have to think creatively. Suspend disbelief for just a moment and consider if tomorrow, the Mayor of Toronto and Council announced that there would be a 1 yr pilot program where Queen St closes to car traffic, say between Roncevalles and the Don bridge. No vehicles in the streetcar ROW, ever, which would speed up streetcars to be the LRT that they were never allowed to be. (Zoom!) The curb lane would be all cyclists by day and delivery trucks by night. Some of the merchants would howl, of course, but seriously, who just drives a car down the length of Queen and expects to go anywhere? Who pulls up to a shop on Queen and parallel parks? Isn’t the tail wagging the dog in terms of using the resources we have?

    We can’t seem to build a DRL, we can’t seem to even build proper bike lanes. So use what we already have (which other cities would drool for) and dedicate Queen to pedestrians, cyclists and streetcars. See what happens. Measure traffic flow, transit use, all the data. With such an impressive artery created overnight, you might see huge improvements in transit and cycling with minimal disruption to auto traffic. Or maybe not – but that’s why it would be a pilot, with no changes other than signage and paint. Shouldn’t we try something?

    By the way, the above is not that different than how NYC closed much of Broadway. They shut it down to cars for a year, studied the results, then left it closed. Traffic is elastic, but without fast streetcars and without a real east-west safe cycling route those modes will never improve.

    Worth discussing?

    • MER1978

      The fact that we still allow street parking on the major streetcar route streets just shows how small town backward Toronto really is. Merchants need to start asking their customers if they walked or took transit to their stores.

      • Shirley Hicks

        This also a parking authority matter. The need for on-street parking could be addressed with additional shopping district parking garages – but they need to be well marked and there needs to be enough revenue to justify their construction.

  • Martin Collier

    Five years ago, in November 2008, Transport Futures initiated Ontario’s
    first rational road pricing discussion with international experts. We subsequently looked at how tolls in terms of public acceptance, leadership and smart growth. In 2011, we
    expanded the focus to include other mobility pricing measures – parking,
    gas taxes and transit fares. On April 8th, our ninth conference will
    have some of the world’s top experts assess the so-called revenue tools
    in terms of how they support good economic, environmental and social
    policy. We cordially invite everyone — including Torontoist — to
    attend! See for details.