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Metrolinx approves raising $2-billion for expansion, stresses accountability

Bruce McCuaig, left, and Rob Prichard during a meeting of the Metrolinx board at the Toronto Reference Library on May 27, 2013.

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

With an ambitious plan to expand transit around the Toronto and Hamilton area projected to cost each household hundreds of dollars annually, Metrolinx officials unveiling their funding recommendations were bending over backward to assure the public the money will be properly used.

The board of the regional transit agency approved Monday a report with its formal suggestions for raising about $2-billion annually for expansion. The report now goes to the province, which said it will undertake "detailed analysis" before bringing a plan before the legislature.

"Our view is that, the sooner it's implemented, the faster that we can move on with the delivery of projects," Metrolinx CEO Bruce McCuaig told reporters after the meeting.

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The money is needed to pay for $34-billion in transit expansion around the region. The slate of 10 projects is intended to put the vast majority of residents within two kilometres of higher-order transit, lines which run separately from traffic.

In the report and in comments during and after the board meeting, Metrolinx leaders were at pains to pledge transparency and accountability.

Among the report's 24 recommendations, which the agency's directors approved unanimously, was a call for municipalities to appoint representatives to the board. The report also urges that the money be put into a formal trust, beyond the reach of future politicians who may have other priorities, and called for the revenue tools to expire when the planned projects are done.

"It isn't a general tax increase … it is a specific proposal, for specific projects, for a specific period of time," Metrolinx board chairman Robert Prichard told reporters. "When that job is done, it's done and re-authorization should be required, no matter how difficult that re-authorization debate might be, 20 years from now."

Mr. McCuaig said that, depending on the project, the money may be spent as it is raised or borrowed against to increase the amount available sooner.

Although the amount each person is going to pay for this will vary, the plan hinges on a one-point HST increase that will affect everyone. That is projected to raise $1.4-billion annually in the Toronto area, with $100-million recommended to go back to lower-income residents. For administrative reasons it may be necessary to implement this increase provincewide, according to the Metrolinx report, but the agency recommends that only money raised in the Toronto area be spent on transit here.

Another $350-million each year is projected to come from a business parking levy averaging 25 cents. This levy is designed to vary depending on the value of the land in the area and, as result, would be expected to be higher downtown and lower in the suburbs.

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The remaining money would come from a 5-cent increase in the gas tax, raising $330-million each year, and an increase in development charges projected to produce $100-million annually.

"I think we've got to bite the bullet and do it," former Toronto chief planner Paul Bedford said. "There's going to be push back on some of these recommended tools. But you know what, no matter what they had recommended there'd be push back."

Metrolinx says the average household will pay $477 per year to implement the current plan, but acknowledges that variables such as transit use or having multiple vehicles would alter individuals' price tags dramatically.

"This is a regional plan … there's not an opt-out provision," Mr. Prichard said. "We're very aware that $477 for a family is a substantial amount of money, this isn't a suggestion that it's trivial or it's incidental. It's a significant amount of money. But we believe it's more than offset by the benefits that accrue [to] those same families."

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