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Passengers ride the Toronto Island Ferry on an ice-covered Lake Ontario in Toronto on Jan. 9, 2014. (KEVIN VAN PAASSEN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Passengers ride the Toronto Island Ferry on an ice-covered Lake Ontario in Toronto on Jan. 9, 2014. (KEVIN VAN PAASSEN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Toronto can do better than ‘good enough’ Add to ...

Amid all the statistics and rankings and tables in the Toronto Region Board of Trade’s latest scorecard on the city’s performance lies an urgent plea: Step it up, Toronto.

The sixth annual Scorecard on Prosperity concludes that, thanks to advantages like a stable banking sector, a strong housing market and a livable environment, Toronto is doing well when compared with other metropolitan regions around the world. In fact, by the board’s measure at least (and this kind of rankings game is best viewed skeptically), it stands third among 24 global metropolises, behind only Paris and Calgary. Better, it has improved its ranking from fifth place five scorecards ago. The report bases its scores on various measures of a city’s economic success and attractiveness as a place to work.

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But Toronto’s high score conceals some dangerous weaknesses. Investment in infrastructure and especially transit is lagging other regions. Toronto trails economic powerhouses like Dallas, Seattle, San Francisco and Boston on key economic measures from productivity to innovation to gross domestic product per capita.

If it fails to improve in these areas, Toronto won’t face disaster – the board isn’t trying to frighten the horses – but it will miss a ripe opportunity to do better. “The Toronto region has reached a fork in the road,” says the report. “One direction leads to ‘good enough’, the other to ‘great.’”

The warning could not be more timely. The 2014 municipal election campaign is just starting to build up steam. Contests like this often revolve around personalities and short-term issues, and, with Mayor Rob Ford in the race, that could be especially true this time.The board’s report challenges candidates to go beyond that and lay out their plans for making Toronto thrive not just in the next four years, but in the next generation.

“Let’s look forward,” says board chief executive Carol Wilding. “We can’t afford to wait any more. That’s why this report is particularly important for an election year, because it shows what’s possible.”

She urges Toronto to take an Olympic-style Own the Podium approach to its future, laying out what needs to be done and mustering the resources to make it happen. To up Toronto’s game, says the scorecard, we must: make sure the next wave of transportation projects in the provincial government’s plan, The Big Move, is funded and built; close the basic-infrastructure gap that has left roads, sewers and bridges aging and in need of investment; boost productivity in key economic “clusters” like health sciences or food and beverages; work to improve the match between labour skills and industry needs.

It’s a tall order, to say the least. The report estimates that governments need to spend an extra $1-billion a year to fill the city’s infrastructure gap by 2035 and about the same to complete The Big Move. That kind of money is far beyond the resources of Toronto alone. Other changes, like improving labour productivity, fall outside the powers of a mayor. That is why the board favours a partnership between business and various levels of government to promote the prosperity of Toronto as a region.

The report says Torontonians “would feel the impact of these four key initiatives directly – through less congestion, more efficient infrastructure, and a stronger labour market with higher wages and salaries. In contrast, relying on the base-case ’business-as-usual’ scenario puts Toronto at risk of serious under-performance.”

This kind of thing can sound pretty pie in the sky. The world would be so much better if we spent more money and learned to get along, and so on. But if an election year isn’t the time to do some blue-skying about Toronto’s future, when is? The scorecard has thrown down a challenge to every candidate for mayor to think beyond today and keep an eye on tomorrow.

Follow on Twitter: @marcusbgee

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