Tackling Public Transit, With or Without Mayor Rob Ford
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Tackling Public Transit, With or Without Mayor Rob Ford

At the first Feeling Congested panel, even some of the mayor's allies seemed to agree that the City may need to tax and toll its way to better transit.

It struck me, sitting in the audience for the first panel discussion related to the City’s Feeling Congested public-transit campaign on Monday night, that any similar event in the future needs to leave an empty spot on the panel—sort of like when people leave an empty seat for Elijah at a Passover seder, except this empty seat would be for Mayor Rob Ford. The door is always open to him, an invitation extended. But if the short tradition of this transit discussion holds, he will never make an appearance.

Or rather, he will be there in spirit.

The mayor’s presence hung heavily and awkwardly over every question asked and every answer given on Monday. Metrolinx’s Big Move needs leadership, someone to champion it as a vital step towards dealing with the congestion that’s disrupting the entire GTA’s economic and social well-being. To have the mayor of the biggest municipality in the region fundamentally disagreeing with the idea of new revenue tools and obstinately absenting himself from the debate establishes a significant obstacle—a major road block, if you will. It’s the exact opposite of leadership. It’s a hindrance.

However, judging from the tone of the discussion, the mayor’s transit intransigence can be overcome.

The panelists on stage were not people Mayor Ford can easily dismiss as the usual left-wing, downtown-elite suspects. There was Carol Wilding, president and CEO of the Toronto Region Board of Trade. Also speaking was John Howe, vice president of investment strategy and project evaluation at Metrolinx. Two of the mayor’s council allies and executive committee members were also present: Councillor Michael Thompson (Ward 37, Scarborough Centre), chair of the Economic Development Committee, and Councillor Peter Milczyn (Ward 5, Etobicoke-Lakeshore), chair of the Planning and Growth Committee and a TTC commissioner.

Along with the City’s chief planner, Jennifer Keesmaat, and the evening’s keynote speaker, former Vancouver chief planner Larry Beasley, all acknowledged the pressing need for the kind of large-scale transit investment the Big Move proposes. Everyone also agreed that funding for the plan has to come from every stakeholder involved. There is no magic solution. As Beasley pointed out in his speech, you either pay for a transit system or you don’t have a transit system.

Perhaps the most telling moment of the evening came when Councillor Thompson, under very pointed questioning from the event’s moderator, Metro Morning’s Matt Galloway, suggested that his own presence on the stage for the debate signaled that he wasn’t aligned with the mayor on the transit file. Even further, the councillor admitted outright that the mayor’s push to rescind the vehicle-registration tax had been a mistake. For his part, Councillor Milczyn insisted that city council would approve a transit plan with the requisite funding tools. Even without the mayor, Galloway inquired? Milczyn said he thinks so.

While everyone agreed that the public could get on board with the idea of paying more taxes, fees, and tolls for transit expansion (an assertion backed up by a recent Forum Research poll published in the Toronto Star over the weekend), any revenue, they decided, would have to be dedicated directly to transit. Councillor Milczyn suggested the reason the city’s vehicle-registration and land-transfer taxes are both so reviled is that the proceeds have always ended up in general revenue—the “black hole of City Hall,” he called it. (I would argue that the City does have other needs, aside from transit, that have to be paid for.)

The problem right now is that a large number of people in the GTA haven’t the slightest idea what the Big Move is and what it’s proposing to do. So, a dedicated tax to what? That could be seen as a PR failure on the part of the province and Metrolinx. On the other hand, as Hilary Holden, a transportation consultant, pointed out on Twitter: “Is public awareness of the Big Move really a measure of success for Metrolinx? Is it not really written for practitioners?” In other words: hey Metrolinx, get your ducks in a row first and then go to the public with a fully realized plan and funding options.

There’s also the concern that while the Big Move is, well, big, it may not be ambitious enough. Oakville mayor Rob Burton wondered about this in an interview with the Toronto Star last week. “Good news, everybody,” he said. “If you’ll spend $50 billion over the next 25 years I promise traffic congestion and transit won’t get any worse…I’m not saying [the Big Move] is not the best we can do. I’m asking: Is this all there is? Can we really not make it better?” And that’s before we even get to the discussion of operating costs to run all this new, wonderful transit.

After decades of talking about it but rarely following up, maybe we’re still low-balling ourselves, spending just enough money to keep the region running at a standstill. Is the public really willing to fork over more money simply to make sure things don’t get any worse?

For all the justifiable concern expressed by both participants and audience members during Monday’s panel, Keesmaat did point out something hopeful: this was a conversation we weren’t even having three years ago. Which is very true. What’s more, much of Monday’s discussion had to do with multi-modal travel. It sounded like attendees weren’t interested in a war on the car so much as they were interested in a levelling of the transportation playing field, with driving simply another, less important way for people to get around.

Heady stuff, indeed: an adult conversation about positive, healthy city building—and one that Mayor Ford seems absolutely determined not to contribute a thing to. Maybe it’s best he continues to ignore it. He doesn’t really have anything constructive to say.