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Toronto's Mayor Rob Ford is pictured during a tour of a Toronto community housing building in the city's east end on Feb. 16, 2012 (Chris Young for The Globe and Mail/Chris Young for The Globe and Mail)
Toronto's Mayor Rob Ford is pictured during a tour of a Toronto community housing building in the city's east end on Feb. 16, 2012 (Chris Young for The Globe and Mail/Chris Young for The Globe and Mail)

Transit

Mayor's enlightened moment proves fleeting Add to ...

For a minute there – just a minute, mind – it appeared as if common sense might be breaking out at Rob Ford’s city hall.

First the mayor wrote in The Globe and Mail that he might be willing to consider a “modest parking levy” to help pay for transit projects like his cherished Sheppard subway extension. It was the first glimmer of acknowledgment that his previous notions – make the private sector pay for it or soak the provincial and federal governments for more cash – might be a touch unrealistic.

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Then, in meetings with city councillors, he was reported to have discussed a whole array of revenue sources, including road tolls and, incredibly, a vehicle registration tax like the one he killed as one of his first acts in office. Although he didn’t endorse any of those tools, the fact that he would let them pass his lips seemed to indicate that he might be waking up to the challenge of building a multibillion-dollar subway with no way of paying for it.

If even a tax hater like Mr. Ford could consider transit taxes, then a taboo would be broken and the prospects for building Toronto transit would brighten. But the moment of realism soon passed. His brother Doug Ford told reporters that all taxes were “evil” and that there was no way the city would consider highway tolls – unless engineers managed to hang brand new toll lanes onto the decaying Gardiner Expressway.

A better idea, he mused, would be to open a casino in Toronto or set up a new lottery to pay for transit. Ladies and Gentlemen, faites vos jeux and build a subway line! With even supporters like the Toronto Sun sputtering at the thought of their gravy-slaying mayor imposing a new tax, the mayor went on radio to clear the air. “There will not be any new taxes administered by my administration,” he told broadcaster John Tory – most especially not a car tax.

What a shambles. What a shame. Special, dedicated taxes are the only real hope for building out transit in Toronto. The province and the feds are tapped out. The idea that the city can raise a fortune by slapping charges on developers who will rush to build condos over subway stations is risky and dubious (what if the development never comes?).

After Mr. Ford met with a group of developers in his office this week, he said they all backed him to the hilt on subways. “They said, ‘Let’s do it,’” he reported. “Not one person, not one developer, said, ‘We’re against it.’” What he failed to mention is that they are adamantly against imposing development charges that would raise the price of real estate for buyers.

Dedicated taxes are all that is left. Don Drummond, the economist who reported on Ontario’s messy finances, said that with gridlock growing and the population of the Golden Horseshoe soaring, “We need honest discussions on other revenue solutions.” He suggested looking at road tolls, congestion charges, gas taxes and parking surcharges.

A report by KPMG consultants on the feasibility of a Sheppard subway project said the city could raise hundreds of millions a year for transit if it followed the example of other cities and considered employer taxes, parking levies, highway tolls, gas taxes and other revenue tools.

Former Toronto chief planner Paul Bedford told his farewell meeting of the board of Metrolinx, the regional transit agency, that without that revenue nothing will be possible and Metrolinx’s Big Move, its long-term transit blueprint, will become a big joke.

Robert Puentes, a U.S. transit expert who was in Toronto this week, says that every major metropolitan area in the United States except for Washington, D.C., has some kind of dedicated tax for transit or roads or both.

Toronto has no choice but to follow suit if it wants to end decades of delay and stagnation and build a 21st-century network. For a fleeting minute, it seemed that reality might be dawning on the mayor. It was too much to hope for.

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