LORINC: The perils of funding the future of transit in the GTA

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.

photo by Elvin Wong

11 comments

  1. One worry I have are future politicians who may redirect the funds that is supposed to be directed to transit only to some other “emergency” (IE. snow emergency, hurricane, etc.?) and then “forget” to put it back. This has happened in the States, where to help “fix” infrastructure, they redirect the funds.

  2. While getting the rest of the GT(H)A involved in transit funding is a good thing, getting them more involved at a political level is probably a recipe for disaster.  Unfortunately it is probably unavoidable.

    Representatives from the outer reaches of the region will inherently be calling for more transit in their respective constituencies.  But the problem is that those parts of the region are largely unfit for transit.  While I think giving them a voice will be necessary with a GTA sales tax (I can hear the no taxation/no representation calls already brewing otherwise), it will inevitably lead to some more niche projects getting green-lit first.  

    Put it this way – with the rest of the GTA footing the bill, I bet the chances of a DRL getting put up front will be nil, not when the vast majority of the people paying the tax are stuck in traffic on the QEW.  

    To me more politicians are the last thing we need…  Just equals more endless squabbling about what will go where and nothing will get built.  This is the joy of the current Metrolinx structure, though I am disappointed they have not been asserting themselves as much as they should be to whip this region into shape.

  3. So you are still going spin the Spacing poll that did not say what you pretend it says.

    The Pembina study says “Drivers are moderately receptive to ways to pay for improved transportation.” Hovering around the 50% range except for parking lot taxes.

    It is kind of sad that you are becoming as bad as Ford at fudging stats. I never thought I would see the day when Spacing would sink to this.

  4. Either scottD doesn’t know how to do math or doesn’t believe in math. When 49% somewhat support and another 25% strongly support something that means 74% support it. Get over it! The poll says what it says and the pollster says it to. It’s not biased, it’s data.

    Or does this mean Spacing has started a War on Math?

  5. John,

    I am always a little disappointed in the “need for a new transit funding source” conversation. Context matters.  We used to fund infrastructure by federal and provincial capital spending which came from income taxes. Successive Prime Ministers and Premiers deliberately hobbled those governments by reducing income tax rates  By “solving” the problem one dedicated revenue at a time we lurch from a crisis in transit to a crisis in housing to crumbling bridges ports, closed  daycares, tatty parks and public spaces, and on and on. We need to admit the Harris/Martin/Harper/McGuinty tax cut era is the problem – not the lack of new revenue tools! 

  6. The Big Move plan already suffers from too much local political interference. It punts the DRL until so far into the future it is unlikely to ever occur, while funding silly projects in the nether regions of the GTA.

  7. Morris, Scott is correct for calling bull on the Spacing/Environics poll. It was crafted in such a way to illict a desired response. An honest poll would never have provided an example of a widley accepted social behavior prior to seeking an opinion. I don’t beleive that Environics are so clueless to not be aware of the influence of doing so.

    Ulf Böckenholt and Robert Caldini, are among those that have done great work in understanding why this is so.

  8. From the Spacing-Environics poll:
    “The findings show public is primed and ready for a meaningful discussion about the future of transit in the GTA,” says Darren Karasiuk, Environics’ vice-president of corporate and public affairs.

    So Glen and Scott are saying Environics staff are lying? Or are you saying that the people who answered the question were duped and that stupid they couldn’t give an honest answer?

    Yes, it was a bit of push poll, but it was much better than asking “do you support a sales for the region to fund transit?” when that’s been asked and the person answering has no context. The poll gave a scenario and people answered, 1,450 of them. And the fact that it lines up with the Pembina numbers shows it was the right question to ask. 

  9. There is another way to fund transit – using an integrated system to connect the private mass transit fleet with the mass transit infrastructure.

    Collating the database of transit intentions of millions of riders would allow the city to behave as a nervous system.

    What is needed is a “New Beginning for Transport” - http://www.edocr.com/doc/27211/transport-new-beginning

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