A Guide to the OneCity Transit Debate

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A Guide to the OneCity Transit Debate

An ambitious transit plan and the troubles it's encountered on its way to city council.

The original OneCity transit proposal.

“The transit plan that never existed.” “One neighbourhood.” “Nothing more than a press conference.”

Harsh words today from many city councillors, in response to the OneCity transit proposal announced with some fanfare a couple of weeks ago by TTC Chair Karen Stintz (Ward 16, Eglinton-Lawrence) and TTC Vice-Chair Glenn De Baeremaeker (Ward 38, Scarborough Centre). Councillors will be debating a number of transit motions beginning at 2 p.m. today; to help you navigate that discussion, here is a quick rundown of what they will—and won’t—be voting on, and how the debate is shaping up.

What was the original OneCity plan?
OneCity called for building about 170 kilometers of subway, light rail, streetcar, and bus rapid transit lines, in a network that would span across the city. To pay for this, the plan included a proposal for a revenue tool called CVA Uplift. That tool would work by allowing the City to keep some of the revenue from property taxes based on the increase in value of properties, rather than the current system, in which some properties diminish in value to balance out properties that gain value (currently when properties are reassessed, the City does not get more property tax revenue in total, it’s just the distribution across properties that changes). That regulation about property tax assessments is set by the province, and so the funding plan would require a legislative change at Queen’s Park.

This municipal revenue would account for, according to projections by OneCity’s authors, one-third of the money needed to construct all the projects they listed; federal and provincial governments would need to step in and provide the rest.

How was OneCity developed?
Discussions about OneCity began to take place, very quietly, during our last major transit debate in the spring, when council voted to restore the Transit City light rail plan. Four councillors in particular—Stintz and De Baeremaeker, plus Josh Colle (Ward 15, Eglinton-Lawrence) and Joe Mihevc (Ward 21, St. Paul’s)—worked on the plan.

How was OneCity received?
The day that OneCity was unveiled, many councillors, including all but one of the TTC’s commissioners, attended the press conference during which it was introduced. Some were there to show their support, but many were there to learn more about the plan. OneCity’s authors, nervous about leaks while they were in the midst of developing their plan, kept its existence quiet, and several councillors we have spoken with only learned about it when the Star published an article the night before the press conference was convened.

A plan of this scope—dozens of lines and an estimated of $30 billion for construction—immediately generated a great deal of buzz and curiosity. One councillor commented to us that it was a “map of needs” and to that extent it was valuable, but expressed immediate reservations about the funding mechanism. That day, almost all the councillors we spoke with simply said that they needed time to learn more.

What’s happened in the weeks since?
Though many both in council and in the public have applauded the ambition and scope of OneCity, recognizing that Toronto needs a long-term vision for transit development, the chorus of concerns has grown even more quickly. Rob Ford and several of his allies dismissed the plan as a tax grab (“I can’t support taxing the taxpayer,” said the mayor). Meanwhile, councillors on the centre and left of the political spectrum identified a range of problems, including the absence of any plan to pay for operating the transit lines we’d be building, the insufficiency of the funding, the resistance of the province, and questioning whether trying to pay for this much transit via property taxes at all was the right approach.

Some of the plan’s authors maintain that many of these objections are nothing more than hurt feelings—councillors upset at being excluded from the planning process. Those who are raising the objections, meanwhile, contend that it’s unreasonable and irresponsible to present a plan of this magnitude without consulting much more broadly.

What will get voted on today?
Stintz and De Baeremaeker have backed off the key elements of their plan: today council will debate neither the funding tool they proposed nor the map of routes they suggested. Instead, they are expected to consider the following items:

  • A motion that originated with Stintz and that was passed by the Planning and Growth Management Committee, which calls for including transit priorities in the review of the Official Plan the City is currently in the midst of reviewing. Peter Milczyn (Ward 5, Etobicoke-Lakeshore) told reporters earlier today that he will move an amendment to this motion, asking for a full study of Toronto’s long-term transit options. This is very similar to a motion council already approved back in March (see #5 here), and Milczyn told us that really all his motion does is reaffirm the commitment to develop this long-term plan via a process of staff research and public consultation.
  • A motion that calls for making an East Bayfront LRT a transit priority for Toronto, in the hopes of completing such a line in time for the Pan Am Games in 2015. This proposal also addresses some concerns that the rapid development in the Port Lands requires that transit infrastructure be included from the beginning—that it will help shape the neighbourhood to have transit included at the outset rather than trying to jam it in later.
  • A motion that originated with councillor Josh Matlow (Ward 22, St. Paul’s), which calls on the City of Toronto to try to establish a working group, consisting of officials from GTA municipalities as well as Metrolinx, to discuss the various revenue-generating tools Metrolinx might include in its long-term funding plan, which will be released next year.

What about a Scarborough subway?
Earlier this year council voted to restore the original Transit City plan, including replacing the aging Scarborough RT, now at the end of its lifespan, with LRT. Stintz and De Baeremaeker want council to reconsider that decision; they have said that someone (almost certainly De Baeremaeker) will attempt to introduce an amendment today that will ask staff to study the viability of extending the Bloor-Danforth subway line, as an alternative to building the light rail line. This, they say, is a key element that remains of their original OneCity plan; two key priorities they identified originally were the Scarborough subway and the waterfront LRT.

However, there is a major procedural hurdle they will need to clear. City council rules prohibit councillors from reopening a debate on an issue they have decided within the past 12 months. Should councillors wish to bypass that rule, they need to vote two-thirds in favour of doing so, and it is unclear that the authors of OneCity have that two-thirds support needed to open the debate in the first place.

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