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The Globe and Mail

Group asks city hall and citizens to face reality on transit funding

John Tory has a theory. If people are wary of paying extra taxes or tolls for better transit, says the civic spark plug and talk show host, it is partly because politicians have persuaded them that there is another source of funds.

But "there isn't some big pot of money sitting in the corner waiting to have someone's hand dipped into it. So we have to say, 'Fine, where do we get the money from?' "

To answer the question, the Greater Toronto CivicAction Alliance launched a campaign Wednesday called "What would you do with 32?" It asks Torontonians what they would gain from half an hour in saved commuting time. Mr. Tory, chair of the volunteer city-building group, held up a sign saying "Spend more time with my grandchildren."

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More than 40 civic "champions" will spread the message of the campaign and the organization will ask people of all kinds to think about how they would benefit from better transit and, more to the point, what they would pay for it.

It is the question of the hour. Everyone agrees congestion is bad and getting worse. The provincial government transit agency, Metrolinx, has a 25-year plan to expand regional transit. But 'The Big Move' requires big money – $50-billion in all – and no one knows where it is coming from.

Which brings us back to Mr. Tory's theory. He argues that people would support new tolls or taxes if they were specifically dedicated to transit expansion, nothing else. The trouble is that "they think somehow there is money sitting around somewhere. If their leaders wanted to be honest with them at all levels, they'd say, 'No, there isn't.' "

That is certainly not what we're hearing from the mayor of Toronto. Rob Ford says there is no way he will support new levies to pay for better transit because taxpayers are already "up to their eyeballs" in taxes.

Whether you agree or not, it is an honest position for a conservative politician to take. What is misleading is to suggest that other levels of government will pick up the tab for transit or that the private sector will build it for us. Yet that is exactly what Mr. Ford has been saying throughout his two years in office. Over and over, he has assured Torontonians that the federal or provincial governments will come riding to the rescue, making tax hikes unnecessary. Over and over, he has told voters that private companies are salivating over the chance to build Toronto transit lines.

He has been at it again this month, as the debate over transit tolls and taxes gets into gear. "I've always said to build transit in this city we have to get all three levels [of government] involved," he told reporters on Tuesday, after city council's executive committee approved a plan to consult the public about transit taxes. "Until the federal and provincial government come on board, and we get the private sector on board, I'm not going to sit around and just put a tax or a user fee on the backs on hard-working Torontonians."

But the feds and the province are not coming through. Both face yawning deficits. Queen's Park has said again and again that its commitment stops at the $8.4-billion it has dedicated to building the Eglinton crosstown and other light-rail lines. The feds have not given even the shadow of a hint they will come through with the billions it takes to build transit.

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The idea that the private sector will fund our transit needs is equally fanciful. Mr. Ford and his brother Doug keep saying that public-private partnerships will do the trick. "P3 is the way to go," the mayor said on Tuesday. "It's happening all over the world."

His brother was even more enthusiastic. "There is billions of dollars worldwide – no, let me repeat that – there is hundreds of billions of dollars worldwide that want a safe investment like Canada. People over in Europe are looking for a place to put their money and we should welcome them here in Toronto." Instead of seeking out that private investment, he said, "we're sitting on our hands saying 'Well, let's go back to the taxpayer,' because that's the only thing we understand … tax, tax, tax."

In fact, as city manager Joe Pennachetti patiently explained, P3s are not a way of raising money to build transit or other infrastructure. "We will be very clear that it is not a source of funding," he said. They are a way of teaming up with private-sector partners to reduce the cost and speed up the construction of big projects. Government still has to pay the bill in the end. A report to Mr. Ford's executive committee added that, "even in cases where the private partner provides financing, the repayment system inevitably comes from government-controlled revenues, i.e. not private-sector funding."

The point is that Toronto can't rely on some transit sugar daddy, private or public. John Tory is right: politicians who suggest otherwise are not being straight with voters.

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