Remember the “adult conversation.” For years, civic leaders talked about the need to have a mature discussion in Toronto about how to pay for better transit. For a while there, it actually seemed to be happening.
With frustration growing about the crowded roads and overburdened transit system, groups ranging from the Toronto Region Board of Trade to Metrolinx to the Greater Toronto CivicAction Alliance held roundtables, consulted the public and issued position papers about the notion of using dedicated taxes and tolls to fund a big transit build-out. Newspapers overflowed with op-eds on the topic. City hall got into the action with an elaborate consultation exercise called Feeling Congested?
Premier Kathleen Wynne raised expectations sky-high when she said, “I’m ready to spend political capital” to create a revenue stream for transit building. But then, heading a minority government and facing a looming election, she dropped the brave talk and rejected the advice of two successive expert panels that had recommended a variety of revenue tools, from a gas tax to a sales tax to a parking levy.
In the provincial election campaign that wrapped up last week, none of the major parties was talking about transit taxes. The adult conversation is officially over.
If further proof is needed, just look at the campaign for mayor. None of the three major candidates is going within a country mile of revenue tools. Rob Ford was always against them. Asked once what he thought of the idea, he made a retching motion.
Olivia Chow and John Tory say it is none of their business. “If the province wants to proceed with whatever they have planned, it’s up to them,” Ms. Chow told reporters after a debate on Monday about transit and transportation. Mr. Tory, too, says it is Queen’s Park’s affair whether to use revenue tools. “That is up to them,” he said.
Mr. Tory, remember, was the chair of CivicAction when it was leading the charge on transit funding. In a paper on the issue, the group asked: “How do we mobilize civic leaders to champion a regional transportation system and the need for new sustainable ways to pay for it?” Mr. Tory himself said in 2012 that “slowly but surely … people reluctantly are at least [willing to] have the discussion as to how to pay for more transit.”
Now he says that he never committed himself to any one tax or toll. “I, at that time, was very clear as the head of CivicAction in talking about the need to pay for transit and spelling out how you were going to pay for it,” he told reporters after Monday’s debate. “I never once actually said one revenue tool was accepted or ruled out. Go and look it up.”
Instead of turning to taxes or tolls, Mr. Tory would raise the city’s share of the money for his SmartTrack surface-rail plan through the miracle of tax-increment financing, which draws on the increase in land values that is supposed to come from transit expansion.
Even transit specialist Karen Stintz, the former chair of the Toronto Transit Commission, shies away from revenue tools. In 2012, she proposed using a special property-tax increase to raise hundreds of millions to build a sprawling rapid-transit network called OneCity. She has dropped all talk of that in her campaign for mayor. Her platform calls for raising transit money by selling 51 per cent of the city’s shares in Toronto Hydro and tapping into revenue from traffic enforcement and the Toronto Parking Authority. Her only transit levy would be a $3 surcharge on downtown Green P parking.
The sole candidate at Monday’s debate who dared to address the once-again-toxic issue of revenue tools was former city budget chief David Soknacki, who is polling in the single digits. Transit, he said, does not come for free. If you want to see the results of “free” transit, look at the Bloor-Yonge subway station at rush hour. “We need to fund what our aspirations are,” he said. “We need to put all the tools on the table” and decide which makes the most sense.
Now that is an adult talking. What a shame he is all alone.