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Marcus Gee, Columnist (Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)
Marcus Gee, Columnist (Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)

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John Baird's profane truth Add to ...

Mean old John Baird.

The federal Transport Minister says Toronto is out of luck with its request for hundreds of millions in stimulus cash to buy new streetcars. The other day he got so annoyed with the city that he was overheard saying that Toronto should "Fuck off."

In the eyes of Toronto Mayor David Miller's administration, that makes him a big rotten ogre, denying the city its shiny new transit vehicles just when it is on the verge of sealing a $1.2-billion deal to build them. City council is dead keen. The province has signed up. Why won't Mr. Baird hop aboard this express streetcar?

For a very good reason. Streetcars aren't stimulus. The project wasn't designed to stimulate the Toronto economy, but to improve its transit system. Toronto would be asking for the streetcar money whatever shape the economy was in.

Ottawa's $12-billion in stimulus spending, on the other hand, has a specific and important purpose. It is supposed to flush government money into the economy in a big hurry, putting money into pockets, buoying demand and staving off the nightmare of deflation. That is why Ottawa tells everyone applying for funding that it wants the money spent within two years. The idea is to get it out the door fast, for projects that are ready to go.

The streetcar project, worthy as it may be, doesn't do that. It is a long-term urban improvement scheme with a 10-year timeline. It will not come to full fruition until years from now, when, with luck, the recession is long over.

Most of the jobs it will create would not go to Toronto at all. The streetcars would be assembled by Bombardier Transportation in its Thunder Bay plant, so 4,650 of the jobs would be in the Lakehead and just 350 in the Toronto area. That would do wonders for Thunder Bay, but how does it stimulate Toronto, where thousands are being thrown out of work by the recession?

Mr. Miller must have known the streetcar project wasn't qualified as stimulus under the federal program, because the criteria were spelled out in black-and-white well in advance. In what now looks like an awful miscalculation, he bid for the infrastructure money anyway.

Unlike most other cities, Toronto put all its eggs in one basket. It could have requested money for a host of urban needs, from fixing crumbling roads to upgrading aging sewers. The city has hundreds of millions of dollars in backlogged repairs.

Yet, almost perversely, Mr. Miller designated the streetcars as its "big ask." In a letter last month, he told Ottawa "to direct Toronto's share of federal stimulus funds towards the retooling of Ontario's transit manufacturing capacity."

The hope was that by bulling ahead with the project, he could push Mr. Baird into coming up with the cash. The city faces a deadline of June 27 for the deal it has struck with Bombardier. To ratchet up the pressure, the mayor and Premier Dalton McGuinty flew to Thunder Bay yesterday to announce their funding for the 204 new streetcars. By appearing together without their federal partner, the mayor and the premier apparently aimed to embarrass Mr. Baird into ponying up Ottawa's hoped-for one-third share of the cost.

But it's they who should be embarrassed at this naked pressure tactic. Mr. Baird is sticking to his guns, and so he should. Stimulus is not a slush fund meant to satisfy every city's whim. It has to stimulate.

If Toronto really needs federal help on the streetcars - and, with its existing fleet going to rust, there is no doubt about that - let it seek an ordinary transportation-funding grant from Ottawa, not go through the backdoor by calling it stimulus.

As Mr. Baird points out, he is not quite the meanie Toronto sometimes seems to think he is. Ottawa has come up with big money for the Spadina subway extension, the Sheppard Light Rapid Transit line and improvements to GO Transit. In light of that record, Toronto will have a hard time portraying the federal Conservatives as uncaring beasts who scorn the city because they can't win seats there.

Everyone agrees that, in a worldwide crisis such as this, governments have to spend to get the economy moving again. But, with so much government money sloshing around, the danger is that politicians will be tempted to use it for pet projects instead of kick-starting the economy. That is precisely what Mr. Miller is doing, and Mr. Baird is right to call him on it.

 

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