Experts Bemoan Gridlock Over Taxes at Transit Summit
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Experts Bemoan Gridlock Over Taxes at Transit Summit

"Going to School: A Transit Summit" brought together planners, executives, and academics for a day of fretting over the future of public transit in Toronto.

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Toronto and the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA) have become bogged down in gridlock and congestion. The only way to alleviate what has now become a drag on economic output and quality of life is an immediate and ongoing investment in public transit. This is hardly news.

At least not to those attending last Friday’s Going to School: A Transit Summit at York University. A symposium spearheaded by Councillor Adam Vaughan (Ward 20, Trinity-Spadina) and organized by his staff and the school’s City Institute, it brought together presidents of the region’s post-secondary institutions, urban and transit planners, academics, and a whole host of politicians and government officials—along with a few “public intellectuals.” Hello, Steve Munro!

Ostensibly focusing “on the needs and issues of providing smooth region-wide transportation for the 300,000 students, instructors, and staff at Southern Ontario’s institutions of post-secondary education,” #trafficschool wound up concluding that without more and better transit, this region will lose whatever competitive edge it now possesses in raising, developing, and attracting the best and brightest. It is simply that important. Full stop.

According to Bryan Tuckey, president and CEO of the Building Industry and Land Development Association (BILD), the Golden Horseshoe is the third-fastest-growing metropolitan area in North America. Our transit planning and building has simply failed to keep pace. The province’s Big Move is ambitious. It’s a stab at dealing with our transit deficit—but, as Jennifer Keesmaat, Toronto’s new chief planner (who moderated the morning session’s second panel), said, it’s a case of “what you ought to do versus what you end up with.” Good intentions, devil’s in the details, and all that.

What’s the holdup? Well, that’s the $50 billion (and growing) question.

For starters, there isn’t (and never really has been) any solid regional coordination in transit planning. We have a mishmash of local transportation agencies that cross but never really meet. People needing to traverse political boundaries using public transit find themselves having to pay more than one fare, and they can never depend on seamless (and time-saving) transfers.

Now, Metrolinx, an organization the province set up to oversee and orchestrate a more seamless, region-wide transit system, has, well, taken its sweet time in doing so. As York environmental studies professor Laura Taylor suggested, the Big Move is a provincial plan that leaves the struggles of implementation up to municipal politicians and planners while providing little assistance and (in my humble opinion) more than a few roadblocks. The recent unilateral announcement of Metrolinx’s plan to public-private partnership the design, construction, and operation of Toronto’s four new LRT lines is just the latest example.

Similar frustration was expressed by Councillor Shelley Carroll (Ward 33, Don Valley East), who was in the audience. She pointed out that she was left alone to defend the increase of density that would need to accompany the construction of new rapid transit in her ward, even when residents objected. Provincial officials or their representatives from Metrolinx are absent when she is forced to argue what is ultimately their case. It’s a situation of Here’s What We’re Going To Do, Now You Convince Everybody—and, presumably, take the fall if there’s enough pushback.

This also underscores the issue of money.

As Tuckey, the BILD president, said, the planning for regional transit is done, and now’s the time to talk about investing. (Yes, “investing,” not “funding.” Transit, like most infrastructure, isn’t simply about spending money. It’s about investing in something that will provide a solid, quantifiable economic return.) Since the Big Move was announced in 2008, there’s never been a complete economic plan for financing it. Bits and pieces have been promised, reduced, re-promised. The whole thing remains little more than a wish list at this point, leaving the entire proposal vulnerable to political whims and changing of the guard.

Metrolinx’s full financial action plan is due to be released next June, five years or so after this whole process began. Meanwhile, municipalities like Toronto have to wait and wonder. Everybody knows what the next step has to be: a discussion about revenue generation. Taxes. What type and how much. It’s hardly a surprise that governments are hesitant to open that can of worms.

But open it they must.

Even conservative radio show host John Tory knows it. Moderating the first panel on Friday, it was the theme he constantly returned to. At one point, he asked the presidents of seven local colleges and universities how they thought we should go about selling the public on the need to raise new taxes for funding transit. His Greater Toronto CivicAction Alliance is set to roll out a taxes and transit-funding strategy in October. It won’t be easy to convince a public long inundated with anti-tax rhetoric that this tax is both beneficial and necessary.

This is the uphill battle all transit advocates must fight. There was certainly no dearth of advice at the transit summit. Urban planner Sean Hertel suggested emphasizing the notion of the cost of doing nothing—that is, not investing in public transit. That’s a song even Toronto’s Board of Trade can sing. Back in 2006, they estimated that congestion cost the GTHA six billion dollars a year. TTC Chair Karen Stintz said that we need to stop thinking road use is free. It’s time to put a price on it. Or, as Professor Roger Keil, director of the City Institute, said in his closing remarks, transit must be affordable, while costs must be acknowledged

And until we fully come to terms with that—that we need more transit and that transit costs money—the gridlock will remain. Polls have indicated the public is at least willing to entertain the idea of paying more to build transit in order to decrease congestion. They get it. Everyone attending the transit summit gets it. A growing number of our local elected representatives get it.

The next step is to convince the rest of our politicians that their reticence on the issue is the only thing now holding us back. Unfortunately, that’s the biggest obstacle standing in our way. It’s the one we need to overcome if we’re to move forward.