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Public Works: Political Leadership Needed on Transit Funding

If we're going to get the transit we need, our politicians are going to have to make some decisions.

Public Works looks at public space, urban design, and city-building innovations from around the world, and considers what Toronto might learn from them.

In the effort to find the $2 billion a year Metrolinx says will be needed to build enough new transit infrastructure to keep the GTA from permanent traffic disaster, the rubber has finally hit the road.

On March 18, the Toronto Region Board of Trade released a report recommending four revenue-generating measures: a one per cent regional sales tax, a levy on commercial parking, a regional fuel tax, and the conversion of existing high-occupancy lanes on expressways into toll lanes.

On Tuesday of this week, Metrolinx saw those four recommendations and raised the Board of Trade seven more, including highway tolls, transit fare increases, and property tax increases.

And Mayor Ford diverted himself from shouting “pants on fire” at the Toronto Star long enough to make a gagging sound and mutter some shrill irrelevancy about a casino.

There’s little enthusiasm for paying for transportation initiatives. A poll in March suggested that more than half of GTA residents don’t support the revenue tools proposed by the Board of Trade, with the highest level of opposition coming from older, suburban non-transit users who support Rob Ford.

Nevertheless, Toronto’s gridlock disaster is only going to get much, much worse for everyone, no matter where they live or how they get around. And notwithstanding our collective preference not to pony up personally (“Why should I pay for people who are too lazy to drive?”) we, the people, are always the ultimate source of funding for public works.

The key need is to enhance the public understanding of how we’ll all benefit from transit investment, regardless of whether we drive a Suburban in suburbia or jam ourselves daily onto the petri dish of cultural and bacterial diversity that is the TTC.

There is a template. In 2008, residents of notoriously transit-averse Los Angeles voted in favour of Measure R, a 30-year, .5 per cent increase in the local sales tax, earmarked specifically for transit projects. The new tax allowed the city to borrow against future revenues and shift 14 new projects into gear. (Angelenos have their limits, though. A vote last year to extend the tax an additional 30 years failed to meet the required two-thirds majority by .06 per cent)

A case study from Northeastern University on the Measure R campaign looked closely at what allowed it to succeed. It found that the structure of the campaign and the players were critical.

Move LA, a coalition of environmental, labor, and business leaders headed by former Santa Monica mayor Denny Zane, played a pivotal role in building widespread support for the initiative. Move LA is funded by private and corporate donations.

Also, the official “Yes on Measure R” campaign, which explained and promoted Measure R to the public, was able to raise $4 million in only two months, with 80 per cent of that attributed to the work of Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Advertising spending was focused largely on cable and radio spots, to reach a broad audience.

Measure R also benefited from the LA Metro Transit Authority’s pre-existing Imagine campaign, which solicited public ideas and feedback on potential transit projects. It’s credited with helping to boost popular support for the proposed tax.

And there were a number of other things that contributed to Measure R’s success.

The proposed plan behind the tax had to be widely known, and it had to be popular. The plan’s architects accomplished this by bundling public transit investment with road improvements, to ensure all regions and parties perceived some benefit. Frequent polling allowed the campaign to monitor the public mood and respond to it.

Even more critical was collaboration by stakeholders from different groups, which, among other things, attracted attention from politicians.

But what the report really drives home is the role played by leadership: that of Zane, of Mayor Villaraigosa, and of others within the community.

Toronto has some leadership of its own. The Greater Toronto Civic Action Alliance has mounted a “What Would You Do With 32?” campaign to drum up support for funding Metrolinx’s transportation initiatives (the name of the campaign is a reference to the average 32 minutes that better transit would supposedly save each resident every day). Former mayoral candidate Sarah Thomson is promoting the one per cent sales tax solution through her Toronto Transit Alliance.

Still, all the sound and fury has yet to translate into meaningful public support or political consensus around necessary transit-funding tools. To date, politicians at all levels, while acknowledging that something must be done, have been terrified of offending voters by promoting any specific type of funding (except for our mayor, whose objections seem to be based less on fear and more on ignorance and general contrarianism).

Toronto has advantages over Los Angeles when it comes to transportation issues, in particular wider acceptance and understanding of how public transit can make a city livable. But we need our leaders to worry less about their jobs and think more about our future.

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