When Karen Stintz unveiled her OneCity transit plan this week, it was met with a flurry of excitement, informed debate and almost adorable levels of optimism. People debated the pros and cons, praised the beauty of its myriad lines and documented the impressive behind-the-scene politicking that brought it into being.
It was almost as if it was actually going to happen.
In Toronto, coming up with a transit plan is not the problem. OneCity, Transit City, Move Ontario: ask around and you’ll probably find that everyone from your neighbour to your barista has their own pithy two-word vision for improving the city’s mobility.
But with each new idea, all we’re really doing is putting the light rail before the horse, so to speak. If the city actually wants to improve its transit – and let’s not fool ourselves, this needed to happen yesterday – we need everyone to put down their pens, open their wallets and pledge an oath to actually following through.
Transit infrastructure is at the end of its lifespan. This is true not just in the GTA, but across the country and yes, around the world. The decline is speeding up just as our population, and the population of all urban centres, is skyrocketing, and all levels of government are cash-strapped beyond belief.
If there’s one thing we should all agree on, it’s that there is no perfect plan and that we will never please everyone . So maybe we should focus on taking a few fundamental steps that will change behaviours as well as the subway map.
If transportation in this city is going to improve, people have to be on board not just with a vision but a funding model. We need cash specifically earmarked for transit. In Los Angeles, a 2008 ballot initiative called Measure R earmarked a half-cent sales tax specifically for transit funding. Projected to generate about $5.8-billion over 30 years, it was passed by more than 60 per cent of voters. Bruce Katz, director of the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program in Washington, D.C., said ballot initiatives are being used in cities across the U.S. to back specific transit mandates. In Canada, it would have to be a referendum or campaign question. “You go to the voters and basically say, ‘We want to be a 21st-century metropolis and having light rail and rapid transit is essential, and therefore we’re going to have to do some kind of sales tax to get us there,’” he said.
Accept that riders will pay
In a 2008 report outlining his vision for funding a transit revolution in the GTA, economics professor and Canadian transit expert Harry Kitchen noted some basic flaws with how people are charged for public transportation in the city. “Where public transit fares are currently used, they are often improperly designed and structured if efficiency goals are to be achieved,” he wrote. Among his suggested changes: a new model where municipal public transit fares are based on distance traveled.
Accept that drivers will pay, too
The main problem with using property taxes to fund transportation, as suggested by the OneCity plan, is that it does nothing to change people’s behaviour when it comes to transportation. Road charges such as tolls, however, actually provide an incentive for people to use roads and public transit more efficiently. “Most of us get in our car, get on the road, and we think we’ve got a free ride,” said Prof. Kitchen. “We’ve gotten so used to it. But people have to pay for these services.” Because tolls would be slow to implement, Prof. Kitchen said a municipal fuel tax would be a “blunter instrument” to provide the cash Toronto needs. In his 2008 report, Prof. Kitchen actually concluded that a vehicle registration tax would be the most effective solution. Introduced by former mayor David Miller, the tax was repealed by Toronto Mayor Rob Ford when he entered office.
Know that we are already too far behind
Hopefully, by 2042, we’ll all be travelling by Google Hovercar. But more likely, we’ll be attending the grand opening of a new transit system that has already been outdated for 29 years. In L.A., Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa came up with an innovative solution to expedite an overhaul of public transit. Using his earmarked sales tax, he proposed the 30/10 project, which aims to build 30 years of transit infrastructure in just ten years. The tax would be used to secure a low-interest loan from the federal government. The city would be able to build everything immediately, and pay the feds back over 30 years with tax revenue. The city also stands to shave $14.7-billion off the price tag by avoiding inflation costs. Of course, even this idea, widely heralded by transit wonks, has been held up in the divided U.S. Congress. Mr. Katz believes the 30/10 project will eventually find its backing overseas, with money from Europe or Chinese investors. “There’s a lot of foreign capital looking to invest in the United States around transformative infrastructure,” he said. The European Investment Bank, for example, has already highway and transit projects in more than 70 countries around the world.
Put someone in charge
As the city pondered Ms. Stintz’s plan, regional transportation authority Metrolinx issued a statement that basically came down to “we’re down with whatever you guys want to do.” Mr. Kitchen said that decisions on transit, as well as the structure and administration of its financing model, should be made by an elected governing body that has real decision-making power. A truly regional transit plan needs to operate outside of city hall and the election cycle. “The biggest problem in Toronto is the lack of a governing body with any real teeth,” said Mr. Kitchen. “Metrolinx exists, but it’s an advisory group. You need some sort of political body that can implement these other revenue tools across the whole GTA.”