It often seems that Greater Toronto is forever poised at the cusp of an ah-ha moment when it comes to creating a more sustainable and sensible transportation system that is at least marginally less fixated on the needs of the private automobile.
There was the great federal gas tax debate of 2004; the McGuinty government’s decision to establish Metrolinx to manage regional transportation planning; the launch of David Miller’s Transit City; the province’s Move 2020 strategy; the Board of Trade’s wake-up calls about the costs of gridlock. And so on.
Now consider the past week: Following the release of the Spacing-Environics poll showing 74% public support for an Los Angeles-style regional sales tax, we had John Tory’s CivicAction coalition launching a big push on the need for a GTA-wide transit investment strategy (which Metrolinx must deliver by June, 2013), as well as the release of a Pembina Institute survey, which showed that stressed out drivers are willing to try a bunch of different fixes – everything from tolls and pay-as-you-go insurance to a regional sales tax – to reduce the time they spend stuck in traffic.
The support levels vary from poll to poll, but what seems clear is that public interest in paying for some kind of solution has crept up since last year and now hovers, ever so precariously, in majority terrain. The reason, as Royson James correctly observed in The Saturday Star, is that Mayor Rob Ford’s preposterous pledge to build a no-money-down subway on Sheppard took this debate out of the policy shops and onto the streets, where it belongs.
Okay, so it’s out there. Now what? How do we do what Los Angeles did in 2008 and marshal the messy energy of public attention into a politically-supported, long-term, funded transportation plan that will deliver real results while withstanding knee-cap attacks from Ford and his ilk?
From where I sit, John Tory’s new drive for an investment strategy requires three important ingredients: politically-accountable leadership; a detailed plan; and a strong signal from Dalton McGuinty’s Liberals about how they plan to deal with the formidably complex policy and governance issues tied directly to money piece.
The Leadership: Cudos to Tory for positioning himself as an external advocate with the guts to initiate the campaign. Someone had to confront Greater Toronto residents with the proposition that they will have to pay to alleviate the mounting gridlock crisis, and I’m frankly glad that someone happens to be a conservative. But Tory, and the civil society groups in CivicAction’s orbit, must now recruit high-profile political leaders with the courage of their convictions. We’ve heard them mouth the familiar platitudes about transit and gridlock. Now it’s time to put up.
Absent some kind of miracle, Mayor Rob Ford, Toronto’s receptionist-in-chief, is not going to fill that role, and that’s a big problem for Tory. So who fills that vacuum? The Stintz 25? Aspiring mayoralty candidates? Or perhaps a key player in McGuinty’s cabinet (e.g., Kathleen Wynne)? And how do the other political movers in the GTA align themselves? Obviously Hazel McCallion and York Region chair Bill Fisch are important voices. But will they step up and join Tory to lead the charge?
The Plan: No one but Ford has tested Metrolinx’s “Big Move” plan, which calls for $50 billion in transit and transportation investment over the next 25 years. But the document’s name is not exactly a household word. It is short on specifics (the cost of individual projects, staging, proposed completion dates, etc.) and has yet to receive close-in political and technical scrutiny from the GTA municipalities and regions (former Metrolinx chair Rob McIsaac succeeded in getting the directors to sign off, but the McGuinty Liberals have since booted those politicians off the board).
It seems obvious to me that if the value proposition for a suite of GTA-wide transit-oriented taxes is that the funds will be dedicated to transit projects, then the public is going to have to get a lot more acquainted with the proposed Big Move plan. In the process, that plan will (must) get a lot more scrutiny – both laudatory and critical. Along the way, some voices will call for changes, and the backers of this whole exercise must have a plan to address those critiques in a timely way without turning this process into an open-ended technical review.
Likewise, Tory & Co., at some point, will have to move beyond the general statement — “we need to raise money to build transit” – and array itself behind a specific proposal, such as to raise the necessary $2 billion a year, we need a program that raises $X from a regional sales tax and $Y from road tolls and $Z from a parking levy. The debate can only begin in earnest when there’s something specific to debate.
The Weeds: It’s all well and good to have a handful of polls saying a majority of GTA residents would pay something for better transit. But as the provincial Liberals surely realize, the process of turning that unformed intention into policy action will be fiendishly difficult. So they’ll need to publicly confront a range of hard questions:
Does the province impose a suite of revenue tools (taxes) on the entire GTA by fiat, or will it merely pass legislation allowing the individiual municipalities to choose from a menu of options? Should there be deadlines? Incentives? Penalties? How will the funds get into Metrolinx’s coffers? And if only some municipalities participate, who decides where the funding ends up getting spent, and when? With such huge sums at stake, the issue of transparency is of paramount importance.
Then there’s the accountability piece: Will the individual municipal councils accept political responsibility for imposing these taxes, or does the buck stop with Metrolinx, which is spending the money? But if there are no politicians on the Metrolinx board (as is currently the case), who ought to be held accountable for mistakes, over-runs and scandals? Indeed, should the province re-constitute the Metrolinx board to include some local politicians (or perhaps representatives of the various GTA transit agencies) as well as provincial appointees? And does this governance debate happen before or after the investment strategy discussion?
As reform agendas go, it could scarcely be more complicated or politically fraught. John Tory is absolutely right to open this Pandora’s box; after all, the ‘fraidy cats in the provincial cabinet have been hiding behind Metrolinx for long enough. But now that the ball is rolling down the hill, the Liberals can no longer duck these and other tough questions, nor avoid the problem of Ford’s opposition. They knew they’d eventually face a day of reckoning when they set up Metrolinx in 2006.
That day is here, whether the Liberals like it or not.