LRTs, subway, LRTs, subway again. Toronto commuters can be excused if their minds are reeling after years of see-sawing over the kind of rapid transit the city intends to choose. Most simply want to see something – anything – built. The latest debate at city council will strike them as another example of meaningless bickering that just puts off the day the new trains finally arrive.
But look at it another way. Only a couple of months ago, city council debated what kind of taxes or levies the provincial government should impose to pay for better transit. After a confused day of motions and amendments, it failed to back a single one of them.
On Wednesday, councillors faced a proposal to raise Toronto property taxes by a modest amount to pay for a subway to Scarborough. After two days of debate, they voted yes. What is more, Mayor Rob Ford joined them. The champion of the taxpayer has finally acknowledged that subways cannot be built out of fairy dust or constructed for free by a benevolent private sector.
If a sustained, comprehensive transit build-out is to take place, governments are going to have to approach taxpayers for support to meet the enormous cost. Toronto’s vote on Wednesday is a big boost for Premier Kathleen Wynne’s plan to bring in new revenue tools – taxes, by another name – to pay for the Big Move transit-expansion plan. If even Mr. Ford is willing to support a tax increase to pay for transit, then conservatives will have a hard time saying that revenue tools are simply a plot by dastardly leftists to pick the taxpayer’s pocket.
With “skin in the game,” as Mr. Ford puts it, Toronto can argue with authority that the federal and provincial governments should come to the table and support the Scarborough subway. The provincial government, Toronto maintains, should deliver up the whole of the $1.8-billion that had been devoted to the Scarborough LRT and earmark it for a subway. The federal government, Toronto now says, should pay for at least half of the extra $1.1-billion it will cost to build subway instead of an LRT.
Without those provincial and federal contributions, this plan is a dead duck. If Ottawa and Queen’s Park come through as they should, it ought to be affordable. Toronto’s contribution, estimated at just under $600-million, is less than the $700-million the city is paying for a fleet of new streetcars.
The result, if it happens, would be all to the good. A subway would provide a faster ride from the heart of Scarborough to the centre of the city. Commuters could keep taking the old Scarborough RT till the new subway was built, instead of being forced onto shuttle buses for three to four years while a new LRT was installed on the RT route. Politicians such as Mr. Ford could no longer stoke suburban resentment by claiming that Scarborough had been robbed of its subway. We would see three levels of government pulling together, as they should, on an important transit investment.
As deputy mayor Doug Holyday put it, the Scarborough subway is a chance to get the ball rolling on subway building after decades of start-and-stop progress. It does not mean a repudiation of light-rail expansion, which would go ahead as planned on Eglinton, Sheppard and Finch. It would mean investing in a sensible mix of rapid transit modes – light-rail where warranted, subway where warranted.
LRTs, subway, LRTs, subway. It need not be just one or the other. With a little aid from higher governments, Toronto could get both.
The spotlight now falls on Queen’s Park and, more importantly, Ottawa. Mr. Ford says he heard encouraging noises from Finance Minister Jim Flaherty when they met to discuss the subway plan, but Toronto needs some definite word before it proceeds. Now that the city has put money of its own on the table, it is in a far better position to ask for help.