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Toronto councillors Karen Stintz and Glenn De Baeremaeker unveil a $30-billion, 30-year transit proposal in Toronto on June 27, 2012. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)
Toronto councillors Karen Stintz and Glenn De Baeremaeker unveil a $30-billion, 30-year transit proposal in Toronto on June 27, 2012. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

MARCUS GEE

With an unusual display of leadership, Karen Stintz throws down the gauntlet Add to ...

Karen Stintz says she isn’t running for mayor against Rob Ford in 2014. What a shame. Ms. Stintz has filled the leadership vacuum left by the stumbling Mr. Ford with intelligence and aplomb.

This winter she saved Toronto from a transit debacle by leading a revolt against the mayor’s half-baked, unfunded “subway, subways, subways” plan. Now she has stepped into the breach again.

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Her $30-billion plan to build rapid transit is the boldest this city has seen in many years. It sketches out a comprehensive network that would crisscross the city with subway, light rail, streetcar and bus lines. In place of the haphazard, stop-and-start process that has left Toronto so far behind many other major cities, she proposes a relentless build-out over three decades.

More important, she actually has an idea for funding it. For years, Torontonians have been hearing idle talk about bringing in new “revenue tools” to pay for transit. Maybe higher parking fees. Maybe road tolls. Perhaps an extra sales tax. Ms. Stintz is the first major elected figure to go public with a real fundraising plan.

Based on capturing a portion of the take from climbing property-tax assessments, it would yield $272-million a year, according to the Stintz numbers, and eventually cost the average homeowner an extra $180 a year. That’s a big hike, and the Ford brothers were quick to denounce it as a tax grab.

But Ms. Stintz says that with traffic congestion topping the list of complaints in the city, property owners may be willing to invest in a transit rollout. “As you build transit,” she says, “you are increasing property values, you’re building the city, you’re investing in the city, you’re reducing gridlock.” In essence, she is telling us all to put our money where our mouth is, to stop moaning about transit and start ponying up to build it.

She is also throwing down the gauntlet to the provincial and federal governments, which would each be on the hook for one-third of the cost. If city council adopts her plan and takes the risky step of raising taxes to pay for transit, it gives Toronto far more credibility when it asks struggling higher governments for help – “skin in the game,” as Ms. Stintz puts it. Instead of just sticking out its hand for alms, Toronto could enter into a partnership with Ottawa and Queen’s Park to transform Toronto into a true transit city. What a gift to the future that would be. What a boon for the whole country if its financial capital and biggest metropolis could manage such a feat.

Of course, Ms. Stintz’s OneCity plan is still only a notion. City council has to approve it in principle in July, then sign on again in the fall after city staff determine whether her novel property-tax idea makes sense. Even some left-leaning councillors have their doubts. They prefer tolls or a hike to sales or income taxes. Persuading other governments to come on board will be even harder. But at the very least Ms. Stintz has kicked off the adult conversation on transit funding that we need if we are serious about clearing congestion.

It has been an unusual display of leadership in these jumpy times. With the city’s transit future on the line and no one taking charge, Ms. Stintz has found a new gear in the last few months. If a mayor’s role is to lead city council, then, in a way, she is already doing the job.

Ms. Stintz was all poise and moderation when she presented her plan at city hall on Wednesday. In a statesmanlike nod to Mr. Ford, who has often scorned her advice, she said the city could not even be talking about new funding formulas for transit if the mayor had not worked so hard to fix the city’s budget.

Her plan quite deliberately puts a priority on extending the Bloor-Danforth subway line to the Scarborough city centre, which would give Mr. Ford his Scarborough subway line despite the demise of the Sheppard extension, killed by city council this winter. It has the added political benefit of robbing him of an election battle cry in the vote-rich suburbs: They stole your subway.

But those who think this is just a play to grab the mayor’s chair are wrong. Ms. Stintz seems sincere about not running, though she will now face big pressure to change her mind. No, she just happens to believe that we need to get serious building transit in this city and get real about how we are going to pay for it.

Whether or not her plan gains traction and whether or not she runs for mayor in the end, she has done the city a great service by challenging us to rise above our past failures, seize the moment and act.

 

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