During her brief and uninformative performance at the Toronto Region Board of Trade this morning, NDP leader Andrea Horwath did nothing to dispel the growing sense that her party hasn’t got a clue when it comes to the GTA’s transit debate.
In a speech and the scrum that followed, Horwath — who also got a grilling on Metro Morning last week — stuck to a very slightly modified version of her reveal-nothing position on the looming Metrolinx investment strategy, which, in a nutshell, looks like this: She doesn’t like tolls or other revenue tools that would burden working families. She wants to find a “fair and balanced approach” — no details given, except opposition to road tolls — that likely includes more corporate taxes and possibly higher income taxes on higher earners. And she wants to read the report when it comes out in May before revealing her hand.
On the crucial question of whether she would earmark government revenues for transit, Horwarth’s hedge seems to be, a dedicated tax stream if necessary, but not necessarily dedicated regional taxes.
“On big projects like this, if people aren’t behind it, you create such a backlash, an ugly situation, that you can’t move forward,” she told reporters. “This isn’t a hurry up type of process.” [my emphasis added]
Huh? Has she taken the TTC at rush hour recently?
As it happens, Horwath had a highly revealing answer to that question. After becoming leader, she says she spent two whole days riding the TTC and came away from what can only be described as one of the shortest political fact-finding tours I’ve ever encountered with a determination to not repeat the experience. She is, however, prepared to rag the puck. How’s that for empathy for the working folks?
Horwath, of course, refutes any suggestion that the NDP has come late and unprepared to the GTA’s transit debate. “We’re very serious about this, not only for Toronto but all of the province,” she said, citing the NDP’s pledge to cover half of the TTC’s operating shortfall during the last provincial election. “We want to go forward in a way that gains some consensus so people can get behind it.”
Asked to name what she regards as the highest priority project in the city, Horwath seemed to indicate that politics — and not sound transit planning — has been the NDP’s guide: “I think it’s those neighbourhoods in the outskirts of this city that aren’t receiving the transit they need.” When a reporter asked about the Downtown Relief Line, she replied: “I think it’s a mugs game to try to divide this city in terms of who needs transit more. We have to address all of these concerns.”
Sounds to me like the NDP leader thinks the DRL is all about relieving congestion for downtowners. Maybe she needs to turn off the Ford’s radio show and realize the value of the line in Scarborough and North York.
Horwath, of course, is negotiating with Premier Kathleen Wynne about the terms and conditions of her support for a forthcoming provincial budget and the current government, so she’s definitely not in policy mode.
Still, the NDP’s conspicuous lack of engagement on the transit file, outside of supporting the Clean Train Coalition’s goal of electrifying the airport rail link, is nothing less than perplexing, especially given that it’s critical for her to hold on to downtown NDP ridings with high transit ridership — Davenport, Parkdale High Park and Toronto Danforth.
Horwath’s studied vagueness comes on the heels of Olivia Chow’s equally non-committal position on the use of dedicated revenue tools, as reported here last week in the run-up to the federal budget [PDF].
On Thursday, Finance minister Jim Flaherty announced that the budget would include a total infrastructure envelope of $53 billion over ten years – a number that includes new measures such as extending the program to ten years from seven (important for long-term projects) and indexing the $2 billion/year gas tax to inflation.
According to the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, which praised the measures, Ottawa’s average annual infrastructure outlay will be $1.4 billion per year, which is slightly more than the $1.25 billion average over the past seven (see Department of Finance chart attached). The budget also renewed $380 million for affordable housing, as well as homelessness programs based on the Housing First strategy pioneered here by David Miller’s administration.
After the Tories tabled the budget, Chow — in her role as transportation critic for the Official Opposition, as opposed to a putative mayoral candidate — released a table claiming the budget slashes over $1 billion a year from infrastructure. But some of the programs she claims have been discontinued had already reached the end of their lifecycle, while others were part of the elevated level of infrastructure funding approved as part of the stimulus meant to counter the 2009 recession.
“From a municipal point of view,” the FCM says, “the budget maintains and slightly increases the annual value of expiring federal infrastructure programs.”
Chow and Horwath, of course, have a parliamentary duty to criticize the regimes in power. But the chorus of Torontonians who are waiting for specific alternatives — proposition, not opposition — is growing with each passing day, and with each rush-hour subway train that’s too full to take on more passengers.
Maybe if Horwath spent more than two cursory days riding the rails with the common folk and reading Ed Levy’s ebook on the politics of transit paralysis, she’d understand the time for difficult political decisions is upon us.
photo by Shabzillaa