Will OneCity Unify Council on Transit?
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Will OneCity Unify Council on Transit?

What the transit plan might mean for Toronto, and for Toronto politics.

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TTC Chair Karen Stintz (Ward 16, Eglinton-Lawrence) and Vice-Chair Glenn De Baeremaeker (Ward 38, Scarborough Centre) launched their OneCity transit plan yesterday with a City Hall press conference. In it, most of the schemes and pet projects of past decades are loaded onto one map which magically becomes a 30-year plan covering Toronto with new rapid transit lines.

OneCity: An Overview

Planning Priorities
Top priority goes to a Scarborough subway extending the Bloor-Danforth line northeast to Sheppard and McCowan, with a Waterfront East streetcar line second on the list. These routes already have money on the table from Queen’s Park and Waterfront Toronto, respectively, leaving Toronto to top up the funding rather than footing the entire bill. The remainder of the plan hopes for contributions from the provincial and federal governments in a sharing arrangement rarely seen in Toronto.

Subway advocates will thrill not only to the Scarborough line, but to a Don Mills Express (formerly the “Downtown Relief Line”), a Yonge extension north to Steeles, and a Sheppard West link from Downsview to Yonge. The Don Mills Express proposal settles the question of whether a “downtown relief line” should simply be a link from the Danforth Subway to downtown by pushing the line north to Eglinton where it could serve Thorncliffe and Flemingdon parks, and connect with both the Eglinton and Don Mills LRTs.

Transit City’s full LRT plan—calling not just for the lines reinstated by council earlier this year but the full suite of lines originally proposed under David Miller [PDF map]—reappears almost completely intact, and is joined by bus rapid transit (BRT) lines on Wilson, Ellesmere, and Kingston Road. There is even a streetcar extension on St. Clair, going west to Jane.

OneCity dispenses with the technology wars of previous plans. It recognizes that each mode has an appropriate place with subways going (mostly) where there is greatest demand, then LRT, then BRT. This avoids conflicts where “my” subway plan precludes “your” LRT plan, allowing both to co-exist.

The most vaguely defined element of the proposal is a blend of schemes to convert GO Transit corridors to the airport and to Markham into express in-town routes. The technology might be mainline rail equipment or subway or LRT, and the comparative difficulties of any of these were not explored in the announcement.

Details for this and other matters will be left to a technical review by staff, a tactic that neatly avoids telling some council members that their pet projects may not quite work out as they had hoped. This leaves oddities on several routes including the Scarborough subway, whose path from Kennedy Station to Sheppard cannot possibly be as simple as shown on the map; a Waterfront East line described as going to Parliament, but mapped as continuing up Cherry to King; and Transit City lines whose shortcomings are known but not acknowledged in the new plan.

To pay for all this, Stintz and De Baeremaeker propose that the tax regime planned for coming years be changed. 2012 will see new assessed property values in Toronto. Normally these changes would be revenue neutral in the sense that higher average values would be offset by a lower tax rate. Properties whose values went up more than the average would pay more; those that fell relative to the average would pay less.

The OneCity funding plan—something called Current Value Assessment Uplift Funding—seeks to tax part of higher assessed values on the premise that better transit improves a property’s worth. Homeowners and businesses whose property is now more valuable (at least on paper) would pay a tax on that increase. The average house would pay $45 more in the first year, and this would ramp up to $180 more in year four. Legislative changes will be required at Queen’s Park to allow this (the province regulates property taxes via the Assessment Act), and a thorough analysis of the effects of this tax scheme will be needed to see just who will wind up paying for all of the transit improvements.

Oddly enough, Stintz and De Baeremaeker seem to be avoiding a head-on debate about simply raising taxes to generate the revenue needed for transit funding, and the CVA Uplift scheme may fall most on those whose property values have gone up more than the average whether they actually benefit from new transit infrastructure or not.

Missing from the plan is any discussion of how to pay for the extra operating costs of better service—more subways, LRTs, and rapid bus routes—and maintenance of new infrastructure. De Baeremaeker was emphatic that new tax revenue would be dedicated to construction, not diverted to operations where its benefits were less visible.

The Benefits, the Risks, and What Should Come Next

Whether OneCity winds up with funding through some form of property tax or another source, the plan launches a discussion about what Toronto should strive for in its transit network. That discussion is at a municipal level where it should be, not a sideline to a regional plan where local needs scant attention.

New municipal tax revenue will only pay one third of the cost of OneCity, but the worst possible tactic would be for Toronto to sit back waiting for both Queen’s Park and Ottawa to sign on with bags of cash. Just as it did with Transit City, Toronto should launch detailed planning for its high-priority lines so that when money is available, work can start immediately rather than waiting two years for preliminary design and public participation. Having specific “shovel ready” projects can focus the minds of those who might fund transit more than simply asking for a standing entitlement. Voters and riders want to see results when projects are announced, not endless delay for study.

The most important change with this proposal is the political context. Councillors—and you can bet OneCity’s sponsors already have a majority of votes lined up—have launched a major transit program independently of the mayor and his dwindling band of supporters. Karen Stintz, a moderate conservative formerly part of Ford’s inner circle, joins forces with Glenn De Baeremaeker, a lefty from the Miller era, to push their own comprehensive view of what transit might be in Toronto.

Only hours after their press conference, Metrolinx CEO Bruce McCuaig issued a statement saying that his agency “welcomes the TTC chair’s proposal,” and is “encouraged that Toronto is addressing its local needs.” This is not a full-bodied endorsement, but nothing in the OneCity plan is rejected. Metrolinx, and by implication Queen’s Park, sees this as a positive evolution in Toronto’s goals.

The “OneCity” brand was first used by Stintz in a speech she gave at the Economic Club two months ago [PDF], and a plan like this (not to mention the political coalition supporting it) does not materialize overnight. The TTC’s recent moves to defuse rivalry between its own management and Metrolinx takes on a new colour knowing that OneCity, by then already in preparation, would require co-operation between the municipal and provincial agencies.

Both Stintz and De Baeremaeker stress the apolitical nature of their proposal. It is not a suburban or downtown proposal, a plan for the left or the right, but one for the whole city of Toronto. If they can pull this off—moving debates at Council away from parochial and party biases to a city-wide understanding of and support for better transit—this will be a huge contribution to the city’s future.

Much remains to be done, including undoing Ford era budget and service cuts, moving day-to-day bus and streetcar service back to more comfortable levels, and actively seeking new riders by improved reliability on the system as a whole. This is not glamourous stuff and there are few ribbon-cutting opportunities, but the credibility of transit depends on more than beautiful maps of what might be decades in the future.