This just in: thanks to the fiscal disciplinarians in the Ford administration, the TTC will be able to sock away $135 million for transit vehicles. Can we surmise that in Rob Ford’s Toronto, we’re now building transit on the lay away plan?
Just 37 more years and we’ll have enough to buy us a subway on Sheppard….
I’m being facetious, but that $135 million will do nothing to alleviate the persistent lack of capital for transit development in and around the City of Toronto.
Meanwhile, the mayor’s perverse decision to bury $2.1 billion of provincial transit funding in the soil under Eglinton Avenue East – about a quarter of which comes from provincial taxes collected inside the City of Toronto – is a capital-B boondoggle, and leaves nothing but crumbs for other transit expansion projects (including the Sheppard subway) for years to come.
But as TTC chair Karen Stintz said in a speech to the Board of Trade a few weeks ago, the Commission (and, by inference, the Ford administration) wants to completely cede responsibility for financing transit expansion to Metrolinx, which has a $50 billion plan for Greater Toronto, but no clue how to pay for it. (The agency has pledged to release a revenue-generating plan in 2013.)
Here’s my unsolicited advice for both Stintz and Metrolinx chair Rob Prichard: If you want to figure out how to rapidly and permanently crack the long-term funding riddle, then look to Los Angeles — a quintessentially car-addicted city that, in the past three years, has found religion on transit in a serious way.
But be warned: the story of LA’s dramatic conversion puts us to shame.
Before anyone starts lecturing me about how LA and Toronto have little in common, consider this: while LA County is more populous and geographically larger than the GTA, the two regions have almost identical population densities (just under 800 inhabitants per square kilometre). Both struggle with crippling gridlock and virtually unrestrained sprawl, support competing commercial centres, and have highly diverse populations with large numbers of low-income immigrants.
Now cue Antonio Villaraigosa, mayor of the City of Los Angeles. In the summer of 2008, the board of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which serves LA County, voted to ask the California state assembly to approve a half-cent on the dollar increase in the regional sale tax. With a mandated 30-year duration, that tax hike would raise an estimated $40 billion that would pay for new subways and LRTs, highway and local road improvements and even cycling infrastructure.
Villaraigosa, a wiry Democrat with a keen sense of retail politics, championed the proposal both locally and in Sacramento, ultimately ensuring “Measure R” would end up on the ballot in the November, 2008, election. While Californians in the state’s conservative south have been responsible for tax revolts that crippled local government, voters there endorsed Measure R by more than the required two-thirds of votes cast – an indication that Angelinos had finally grown sufficiently weary of LA’s mind-numbing congestion to sign off on a historic spending plan.
And this in a city where the affluent simply do not use transit. LA’s poor, of course, have long relied on municipal buses to get around, meaning that in LA’s car culture, transit use is strongly equated with poverty and race. In other words, the support for Measure R cut across the extreme social divisions in a city riven with freeways – not a small accomplishment.
Over the three years since then, LA has witnessed a rollicking public debate over what gets built and where. Supported by the editorial boards of LA’s major dailies, Villaraigosa has pushed his agenda even harder, vowing to fast-track the whole show – he wants much of the work completed in 10 years instead of 30 – and lobbying for additional federal stimulus funds. He hasn’t sought to pit transit users against drivers. And he’s pledged to use some of the funds from Measure R to quadruple the size of LA’s bike network, to over 2,700km in the next few years.
Most importantly, Villaraigosa hammered away at a critical theme, which is that this massive amount of civil construction activity will create over 200,000 jobs and pump $32 billion into the region’s hobbled, high-unemployment economy. The comparisons to Fiorello La Guardia, New York’s New Deal mayor, are unmistakable.
To put this in perspective, in just three years, LA laid the political groundwork, hashed out the plans, began collecting the revenue, established accountability mechanisms, and commenced construction. As it happens, some of the earliest projects have involved road/overpass repairs, which just strikes me as incredibly savvy staging.
Back here in Toronto, we’ve spent the same period sucking our thumbs and making bad decisions.
So the question, with apologies to Frank Sinatra, is this: if transit can make it in LA, can make it anywhere, even Greater Toronto?
In theory, we are, or should be, far further ahead than Villaraigosa was in 2008. From a planning perspective, Metrolinx’s Big Move strategy is finished and waiting to be switched on. Politically, transit use here isn’t nearly as alien and freighted with cultural baggage is it is in LA. As for the problem, well, everyone knows the GTA’s traffic crisis is hurtling towards some kind of tipping point.
What we don’t have is a political champion (sorry, Mr. Prichard) with the credibility, optimism, and raw courage to do what Villaraigosa accomplished in LA.
Which, in a nutshell, was this: He was honest, telling millions of Angelinos, state legislators and local business interests that they simply can’t wish their way out of the region’s transportation nightmare. But then he persuaded them that there’s much to be gained from that half-cent premium on the region’s sales tax.
Villaraigosa, in short, is leader for the ages – LA’s gamechanger. Who’s ours?
photos from Metropolitan Transport Library & Archive