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Toronto Mayor John Tory. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
Toronto Mayor John Tory. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

John Tory

Why the federal budget should include a cash infusion for big-city transit Add to ...

John Tory is Mayor of Toronto.

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Every day, more than 2.7 million trips are taken on Toronto’s transit system. In Montreal, more than 2.2 million are taken on the Metro on an average day, while the Vancouver system sees more than 1.1 million.

As of 2014, Canada’s three largest cities were among the top 10 busiest transit systems in North America. Taken together, their daily ridership numbers are higher than the combined populations of eight Canadian provinces and territories.

Saying that big-city transit systems need the attention and investment of our federal government is not centre-of-the-universe posturing or an elite urban perspective, it’s an indisputable statistical and economic reality.

Investing in big-city transit – revitalizing its existing systems and expanding its networks – is one of the smartest bets the federal government could make in the country’s economic and social well being, with almost immediate payoffs.

On Tuesday, cities are hoping to see federal funding for transit infrastructure flow to cities according to their need, meaning that places such as Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal would receive an increased share.

This would be a big deal for big cities and mean faster, more reliable service for the millions of people who use urban transit every day (many of whom come in from outside the city proper). This would increase our productivity and economic outputs while spurring private investment in urban centres.

The new Liberal government campaigned on a commitment to cities, with an infrastructure plan that promised to inject roughly $125-billion of spending over the next decade.

This stimulus plan will have an impact on more than just urban transit; it will also benefit social and affordable housing, help us to attract and retain young knowledge workers, climate-proof our cities through flood protection, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by addressing their root causes, retrofitting aging buildings and getting more people out of their cars.

The Minister of Infrastructure, Amarjeet Sohi, is a former Edmonton city councillor and one-time bus driver, who knows just how important municipal infrastructure – and municipal autonomy – is to making cities work.

That means the mechanism by which the money flows to cities over the long term will be equally important. An eventual move toward direct funding to cities would demonstrate a respect and understanding for how our transit systems have a direct impact on the economic and social well being of Canadians.

Of course, this will have to be navigated in the context of federal-provincial relationships as well, but Toronto has plenty of work to be done in the meantime.

The federal government has indicated that the first two years of funding will be focused on recapitalization, an important acknowledgment of the precarious state of aging transit systems and municipal infrastructure.

In Toronto, this money could be used to address the Toronto Transit Commission’s unfunded state of good repair projects, which currently has a $2.7-billion price tag. These repairs and investments would allow the city to modernize its signal systems so subways can run more frequently and efficiently, repair tracks, make the remainder of subway stations accessible to people using wheelchairs and with strollers, and expand the bus networks across every neighbourhood of Toronto.

This funding could also help speed the planning, design and delivery of Toronto’s ambitious transit network expansion, including local rail service via SmartTrack, a subway extension and light rapid transit in the underserved region of Scarborough, a Yonge Street Relief Line to take the pressure off the existing subway network, Waterfront LRT, and other rapid bus and transit lines across the city.

Big cities are facing growing populations and exceptional pressures on their networks. And the federal budget represents an unprecedented opportunity to recalculate what our cities are worth.

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