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politics

City Hall’s Transit Gridlock Must End

The mayor and his allies are once again trying to derail a proper conversation about the future of transit. City council must stop them.

The outcome of the debate was clear from the moment the report appeared.

Mayor Rob Ford is absolutely, positively, undeniably opposed to any new taxes to pay for transit (or anything else, for that matter). He sees fiscal salvation in vague promises of government efficiency, the magic of private sector finance, and the siren lure of a megacasino. Taxpayers are fed up, says the mayor, and new taxes just won’t happen on his watch.

To that end, this week Ford and five of his closest allies decided to shelve a major report on long-term transit funding for the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area. They decided to derail that conversation—a chance to give Metrolinx, the regional agency in charge of transit, their advice and recommendations about how to proceed—for just long enough to make themselves entirely irrelevant to the process. Metrolinx will unveil their strategy for tackling that funding question on May 27; the executive committee deferred their debate on the issue until May 28.

Mayor Ford is entitled to his opinion, as are the executive members who passed that 6 to 4 vote to take no action. But there are 45 members of Toronto city council who represent the voters of the city, who now won’t get to sit down together and debate this report. The executive committee simply does not care to let them have their say, exercise their democratic right to discuss one of the most important issues facing the city. The mayor and his minions have spoken.

This cannot stand.

The congestion on our transit and road systems currently dominates the agendas of municipal and provincial governments, community groups, and business associations. They are all asking how we can undo the damage cause by decades of underinvestment in transportation, while the region sprawled and travel demand grew beyond the network’s capacity. All of them, that is, except for the leadership at Toronto City Hall.

How We Got Here

Five years ago, the Ontario government tried to wrestle with this problem through Metrolinx, with a plan called The Big Move. Fighting congestion was never going to be easy or cheap; the task requires a regional view both of transportation requirements and of funding options. The plan was—is—imperfect and undersized, but it was a starting point.

The Big Move arrived just as the world economy began to unravel. Just when momentum, a sense of beginning and accomplishment, was needed, Queen’s Park put the brakes on transit spending thanks to budget pressures, throwing the whole project into question. But the conversation didn’t stop. Congestion did not conveniently evaporate just because provincial revenues fell, and though implementation was delayed, people began considering how the $50 billion set of projects could be funded.

Our collective conversation about these issues changed fundamentally when the business community recognized that the “do nothing” option would not bring the savings a “no new taxes” policy might promise. Congestion affects the region’s economic vitality, and the value of lost time and of falling competitiveness is greater than the cost of improving the network’s speed and capacity. With that recognition, better transit stopped being a “left-right” issue, a question of social good versus hard-nosed business, and became a common problem.

Metrolinx’s pending report on “revenue tools”—a euphemism for the suite of taxes, tolls, and fees we’ll need to introduce to raise all that money—goes back almost as far as The Big Move itself. The menu of options was always there in plain sight, although many were reluctant to discuss the issue lest a tax-and-spend brand be stamped on their foreheads. But we are, finally, talking about it.


Related:

Kathleen Wynne Takes on the Future of Toronto Transit (Sort Of)


For the past year, the debate over transit funding has been hard to escape. Metrolinx has had its round of consultations. The Toronto Region Board of Trade stepped up with support. CivicAction’s What Would You Do With 32? campaign, backed by a variety of business and social leaders, stressed the personal loss that worsening congestion will bring in added commute times. The debate hasn’t stopped at the 416/905 boundary, and recognition that inaction is unacceptable pervades the region. Will new revenue streams be an easy sell? No, but at least politicians are engaging us on it now.

The Toronto Problem

Now we come to Toronto, centrepiece of the region, with half its population and by far the largest and best-used transit network. Metrolinx asked all municipalities to comment on possible funding tools, and Toronto passed this task on to its professional staff. The response, a long report [PDF], is the one that came before the executive committee on April 23. It’s the one that committee decided to defer until after Metrolinx had issued its recommendations.

Council’s rules of procedure are designed to give extra power to the mayor and executive, in part, to prevent a pesky minority from advancing business that a “majority government” of the mayor and council don’t support. (We use the quotation marks because, without political parties at City Hall, the terms technically don’t quite fit. They capture the dynamics accurately, however.) Toronto effectively has a “minority government” with the mayor and his shrinking band of loyal allies cornered by opposition on council. The rules require a super-majority, a two-thirds vote, to seize the agenda from the mayor’s control. If the mayor can exploit division among his opposition, building minority coalitions just big enough, he can thwart votes to undo his policies.

A little over a year ago, that tactic failed, and council held a special meeting to reinstate a long-standing plan to build several new light rail lines in the city. Control of the transit agenda passed to Karen Stintz and a coalition for whom Ford’s subways-subways-subways mantra was an empty promise obstructing real progress on transit expansion.

The question of revenue tools should come before council so that the entire assembly, the representatives of all voters, can decide which options they support, and more generally how transportation planning and spending should proceed.

Six members of the executive committee think they know better. Some of them hope for a new political dawn with a Tory government installed at Queen’s Park. A mayor who cares so much for his taxpayers and his city places his faith in a change of the guard at the Pink Palace. Everyone else can step aside.

That’s not how government is supposed to work in Toronto. The arrogant meddling of the mayor and a few of his puffed-up lieutenants should not prevent us from having a proper, complete debate on this vital issue. If Toronto really does not want Queen’s Park to levy new taxes or pay for expanded transit, then let council say so.

The process has been used before and it is quite simple: if 30 councillors, two-thirds of council, work together, they can run the table, control not just votes but the process of conducting city business. Nobody likes the idea of paying more for anything, but that train has left the station. If we want more transportation, if we want to support the regional economy, if we want to reduce the paralysis on roads and transit, we must pay. The questions now are how much we need, and which revenue sources we will tap.

City council deserves a chance to debate these questions and to participate in unlocking decades of inaction, of political gridlock. We deserve a government that is willing to have that debate.

Rob Ford has sabotaged Toronto’s transit planning, and much more, for too long. Where are the 30 who will put this wretched mayor in his place?

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