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Several councillors confirmed Wednesday that in private meetings Mayor Rob Ford has floated the option of bringing back the vehicle-registration tax – and jacking up the annual fee to between $80 and $100 from the $60 charge that was killed last year. (Fred Lum/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
Several councillors confirmed Wednesday that in private meetings Mayor Rob Ford has floated the option of bringing back the vehicle-registration tax – and jacking up the annual fee to between $80 and $100 from the $60 charge that was killed last year. (Fred Lum/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

MICHAEL WARREN

How to get Toronto's transit policy back on track Add to ...

Back to the future for Toronto transit.

Mayor Rob Ford is getting much of the blame for the most dysfunctional transit-planning debacle in the history of Toronto. His ignorance of the role that rapid transit plays in city building is disturbing.

Ontario has a lot to answer for as well. Premier Dalton McGuinty and Metrolinx have long known what the best transit solution is for Toronto. They’ve had the authority, the money and the capability to implement the Toronto component of their Big Move plan for several years. Instead, they chose to play it safe politically.

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In 2010, the province failed to insist that city council approve the light-rail Transit City plan. This allowed the newly elected mayor to maintain that the city was never bound by Transit City.

Mr. McGuinty could have proceeded with its implementation. It was a credible plan jointly developed with the city. Metrolinx had the planning clout, was already proceeding, and all the funding was coming from Queen’s Park.

But Mr. McGuinty was facing an election in the fall of 2011. He thought Mr. Ford had a “nation” of supporters he could call into action at a moment’s notice. Rather than challenging him, the Premier took the easier route: He agreed to spend Ontario’s money Mr. Ford’s way.

The result has been a prolonged provincial retreat from sound transit policy for Toronto.

Even Metrolinx, which is supposed to be a strong advocate for informed transit planning, fell silent. Along with others who knew better, it allowed decision makers and the public to be lulled into believing in Mr. Ford’s flawed transit premise: The best solution is always subways if only we could afford them.

This is dangerously misleading. Subways are not always intrinsically better. Buses, streetcars, light rail and subways all have a place in a mass transit system. Cost effectiveness is one factor. But so are accessibility, ridership, network connectivity, community impact and level of service.

The person who deserves the most credit for the sensible outcome is Toronto Transit Commission chair Karen Stintz. She was initially chosen by Mr. Ford to be his transit handmaiden. For the first year or so, she played that role without question. But as her exposure to the folly of Mr. Ford’s subway plans grew, she began to quietly marshal support for saner options.

In February, she persuaded city council to reinstate much of the Transit City plan. In early March, she persuaded them to completely revamp the membership of the commission and remove Mr. Ford’s remaining allies. More recently, she succeeded in dashing Mr. Ford’s nonsensical dream of a Sheppard subway by winning council approval for light rail instead.

While this is all history, it’s important history – and not to be forgotten, considering Mr. Ford’s promise to make subways an issue in the next municipal election.

Now the province and the city have to take some key steps to make up for lost time.

City council should press the province to approve the revised city plan without delay. The city also needs to develop a longer-term transit blueprint consistent with Metrolinx’s 25-year Big Move regional plan. Transit planning needs to be an integral part of the city’s economic development strategy, and official plan.

The TTC has to instill renewed pride and excellence in its operation and become a forceful advocate for more sustainable investment in rapid transit. The public needs to understand the role that transit plays in shaping successful cities and keeping goods and people moving.

Funding for future transit expansion is now the overarching challenge. The province has made an $8.4-billion down payment on the Toronto segment of its $50-billion Big Move plan. But the deficit-laden province and cash-strapped city face serious financial limits.

Metrolinx is supposed to provide Mr. McGuinty with a comprehensive report in 2013 on how to finance mass transit expansion. A wide range of funding options is being considered. Many are already being used by leading cities around the world. They include highway and inner-city congestion tolls; a dedicated portion of the gas tax; region-wide parking surcharges; and public-private partnerships that use private capital and operating know-how.

The provincial election is over. There’s no reason to wait until next year to call for this report and give this issue the leadership it needs. Mr. McGuinty’s minority government should be able to gain NDP support for a broader set of dedicated funding options that give the province, municipalities and the private sector more ways to fund transit infrastructure.

We have to make Toronto’s transit system more car competitive. Otherwise, our dependence on the automobile will continue to grow. So will the lost productivity, environmental impact and energy costs that go with it.

Michael Warren is a former Ontario deputy minister, chief general manager of the TTC and CEO of Canada Post.

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