Rob Ford’s truculent behaviour in the wake of last week’s council decision raises a question that is surely setting Dalton McGuinty’s teeth on edge:
How will the mayor react to Metrolinx’s long-overdue investment strategy that will lay out a plan to create a system of levies and taxes designed to fund the balance of the agency’s $50 billion/25 year Big Move plan, approved in 2009. Under the Metrolinx legislation, that strategy must be released no later than June 2013.
The mayor, cheered on by the mischief-makers who comprise the Gang of Six Scarborough Liberal MPPs, is threatening to spend the balance of the term doing everything in his power to oppose LRTs on Eglinton, Sheppard and Finch. He doesn’t have a paper-clip’s worth of regulatory authority to block those projects, but he can certainly keep moving his mouth. And since he soaks up media attention like stale bread soaks up water, his rabble-rousing rhetoric is a problem of the first order.
I’d say it is almost 100% certain that at some point in the near future, the brothers Ford will add Metrolinx to the list of villains allegedly seeking to screw Scarborough. After all, the agency will build, own and possibly operate those lines, so it becomes a convenient target for the Fords’ anger, as well as their dual-track political goals: getting re-elected and defeating the Liberals, who created Metrolinx.
Indeed, the investment strategy — which could either be imposed on the GTA by fiat or foisted on the municipalities to implement individually — becomes a choice bogey-man for the Fords and Tim Hudak’s Tories: a massive tax grab that will wreak decades of St. Clair-style “boondoggles” not just on Toronto, but the entire region.
It is also 100% predictable than the brothers — cheered on either quietly or at full blast by Team Hudak — will continue to agitate for a referendum on something, if not the LRTs (that horse has already left the stable, so to speak), then the city manager’s forthcoming recommendations for a made-in-Toronto policy to establish earmarked levies for transit expansion. The Fords, having hung Mike Del Grande out to dry last week for pitching just such a proposal, will likely plant themselves squarely in the path of any policy that involves new taxes, even if the money will be used for rapid transit. As Doug says, all taxes are “evil.”
So what are the Liberals to do?
Here’s one scenario: Metrolinx releases its investment plan, only to see it disappear again into the maw of various provincial ministries for further study, etc. All that policy rumination, by some strange coincidence, may actually take so long that said strategy won’t re-appear in time for the 2014 elections.
What’s the case for temporarily re-burying the funding plan, besides craven politics? The operational reality is that Metrolinx will spend the next decade building five new transit lines in Toronto and York Region; completing the Union-Pearson link; re-constructing parts of Union Station; rolling out the Presto fare payment system; and further expanding the GO network with two-way all-day service to the busier parts of the GTA hinterland. In short, Metrolinx will be one busy little anthill for the foreseeable future, and so maybe it doesn’t need a new flow of cash just yet.
By the late 2010s — when the Fords, one hopes, will have been dispatched by the voters (or the courts) — the agency will be in a far better position to begin thinking about the next tranche of projects and the project planning processes. And if you buy that logic, you may also acknowledge that there’s no specific reason to bring this issue to a head in the next year or two.
The other approach is the high-speed one Los Angeles adopted in 2008, when more than two-thirds of voters approved a ballot proposition adding half a cent to the regional sales tax (about $25 per person per year) — a move that will bring in $40 billion over 30 years for twelve new transit corridors, highway upgrades and other public space improvements. In the three years since, LA’s transit authority, Metro, swiftly approved the projects and has begun construction on a handful. (Read my Spacing column from late-January on this topic for further details.)
Move LA executive director Denny Zane, one of the architects of the deal, told me recently that Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa fronted the tax increase campaign after a wide range of stakeholder groups — business, labour, and environmental organizations – came out loudly for a plan to revive transit expansion in the face of increasingly debilitating gridlock.
While California has a tradition of tax revolts, this hike passed muster because it smacked of smart politics. Going into the vote, Metro had a costed-out wish list of projects, so voters weren’t casting ballots for an abstract tax hike. The spending plan touched many parts of LA, so most of the County’s 88 municipalities came away with something. And business groups liked the economic development story: over the next decade, these projects will create tens of thousands of construction jobs in a region that’s been hard hit by the 2008 financial collapse and ensuing recession doldrums. The learning: It’s about the stimulus, not the construction delays.
For all those reasons, Villaraigosa was prepared to roll the dice. McGuinty, by contrast, faces a very different sort of political calculus with Metrolinx’ funding plan. Yes, it should have been released, approved, and implemented yesterday. The premier, however, has no high profile champion in the GTA’s largest municipality, yet he is facing off against an especially obdurate opponent who doesn’t know when to shut up or quit. So unless an especially effective cheering section materializes quickly, the Liberals would be wise not to give the Fords more fuel for their fire.
photo by Samuel Bietenholz