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Mayor Gregor Robertson speaks to commuters about the transit referendum while they wait for a bus at the Broadway-Commercial SkyTrain Vancouver, March 6, 2015. (Ben Nelms for The Globe and Mail)
Mayor Gregor Robertson speaks to commuters about the transit referendum while they wait for a bus at the Broadway-Commercial SkyTrain Vancouver, March 6, 2015. (Ben Nelms for The Globe and Mail)

What Vancouver can teach Toronto about leading on transit Add to ...

Ballots start landing in metropolitan Vancouver mailboxes next week for an unusual and important vote. In a special plebiscite, residents are being asked to approve an increase in the provincial sales tax of half a percentage point to pay for improvements to the regional transportation system. Recent polls suggest they will say no when the mail-in ballots are tallied at the end of May. But even if they do, Vancouver is way out ahead of Toronto, whose provincial and municipal leaders have failed even to pose such a challenging question.

The two cities find themselves in a similar fix. Both have been experiencing robust growth fed by the arrival of hundreds of thousands of immigrants. Both have failed to make the necessary investments in transportation networks to help people get around. As a result, both suffer from congestion that makes commuting a misery and threatens to choke their economies.

The cost of making up for years of delays and inaction is staggering in both places. Metrolinx, an Ontario-government agency, says it will take $2-billion a year for 25 years to beef up the transportation system in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area. Vancouver’s council of regional mayors estimates that governments need to spend $750-million a year for 10 years to upgrade roads and bridges and add more bus, rail and commuter-ferry service.

The question, as always, is how to pay for it all. For a time, it looked as if Toronto-area politicians were getting ready to bite the bullet and impose special taxes that would create a stream of revenue for transportation needs. Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, in particular, raised hopes among transit advocates when she talked about new revenue tools for these purposes.

But when Metrolinx produced an exhaustive study recommending a 5-cents-a-litre gasoline tax and one-percentage-point increase in the sales tax, Ms. Wynne, facing a probable election, balked. She balked again when a second group, led by public-policy guru Anne Golden and appointed by her government to take another look at transit taxes, recommended gas taxes, among other options.

That threw a wet blanket over the revenue-tools debate. When Toronto’s municipal election began last year, none of the leading candidates embraced the idea, not even John Tory, who had once urged politicians to level with voters about the need to raise new money for transit. His SmartTrack plan for “surface subways” would rely on rising property values, not taxes on the general public, for its financing.

Vancouver’s leaders have been bolder. Regional mayors have been working as a team on this issue, something Toronto-area mayors have never managed.

Putting the idea of a transit tax to the voters was not their idea. Premier Christy Clark, perhaps recalling the public revolt over a harmonized sales tax a few years ago, insisted on putting any new revenue tool to a vote.

But now that the campaign is under way, many of those mayors have been throwing themselves into the task of persuading the public to vote Yes. As the start of balloting approached, they buttonholed commuters at transit stops and held telephone town halls to make their pitch. They argue that at a cost of about $125 per family per year, they can start buying the buses, building the bridges and laying out the rail track needed to handle the region’s growth. Backing them up is a broad coalition of business groups, union leaders and public officials.

If voters are skeptical, it is not that they don’t buy the argument for investing in better transportation infrastructure. It’s that they worry the money will be squandered. TransLink, the local transit agency, has been having all kinds of problems. Computer failures caused a shutdown of the Skytrain service last summer, forcing commuters to walk along the tracks to reach safety. Glitches have plagued the introduction of the tap-and-pay fare card, Compass. It didn’t help when TransLink removed its chief executive officer but said it would keep paying him till 2016, while paying an interim CEO $35,000 a month.

The mayors have been scrambling to make up for the damage. They said they would bring in billionaire Jim Pattison to oversee the spending of the new transit money if the Yes wins. Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson is calling for a shake-up in the way TransLink is governed, too.

It may be too late to rescue the Yes campaign. But the exercise has done some good all the same. By sticking their necks out and campaigning for a transit tax, the mayors have made the point that better transit does not come for free and that someone is going to have to pay for it one way or another. That is more than Toronto’s leaders have been willing to do.

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