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Residents remain skeptical on Metrolinx funding

Toronto traffic

Randall Moore/The Globe and Mail

Toronto's leaders have not persuaded the public of the need for more spending on transit to break through the region's growing gridlock.

Surveys from the province's regional transit agency, Metrolinx, obtained by The Globe and Mail under an access to information request, show people in Toronto and Hamilton are opposed to paying new taxes and fees to raise the billions needed to expand regional transportation infrastructure.

The documents include a September, 2011, Environics poll of residents in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton areas that found 70 per cent of the 2,500 surveyed agreed that government "has enough money to improve road conditions and transit; they should not need to further raise taxes or fees." Twenty-four per cent disagreed with the statement and 6 per cent were undecided.

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There was at best tepid support for four specific tax measures – road tolls, a parking levy, a regional sale tax and a gas tax hike – designed to pay for new transit options, estimated at least $2-billion a year for 25 years.

As well, the documents show Metrolinx held focus groups with representatives of 21 regional stakeholder groups, including seven chambers of commerce, for advice on selling tax tools to bankroll major transit programs.

Among their recommendations: Give the public a limited number of realistic funding options and rely on a trusted leader to promote the plan.

In an interview, Metrolinx chief executive officer Bruce McCuaig acknowledged the agency has to step up its efforts to communicate its long-range vision to Greater Toronto and Hamilton residents.

"We need to be doing a better job of explaining those issues," he said, adding that Metrolinx will be rolling out a high-profile public-education campaign later this fall.

Earlier this month, Civic Action launched a campaign promoting the need for new ways to pay for a $50-billion Metrolinx plan known as "The Big Move," which envisions a network of LRTs, subways, bus corridors and all-day GO service across the region. The "Your 32" campaign asks residents to think about what they would do with the estimated extra half hour of commuting time they can expect by 2030 – time that would be saved if Big Move projects are built.

A recent Toronto Board of Trade/Globe and Mail/Nanos poll showed that only one in 10 residents had heard of The Big Move. Civic Action chair John Tory said that Metrolinx hasn't done enough to plug its long-term vision, adding that even simple PR measures, like putting up posters in GO vehicles showing maps of The Big Move, would help spread the word.

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Mr. Tory said he frequently hears callers to his radio show saying they'd be more willing to pay if they knew the funds would go exclusively into transit projects. "Slowly but surely, as we experience more and more congestion, people reluctantly are at least [willing to] have the discussion as to how to pay for more transit," he said.

The revelations come at a highly charged moment. With the City of Toronto poised to start public consultations on establishing new revenue tools, the Toronto Transit Commission Wednesday is vetting a report calling for a $3.2-billion "downtown relief line" meant to alleviate crowding on the Yonge line.

Such a line is low on the provincial transit agency's list of priorities, raising the question of whether the city will make a bid to manage its own transit expansion.

TTC chair Karen Stintz took issue with the Metrolinx findings, saying she felt a growing number of Torontonians "understand that we don't have enough money to meet all our priorities."

The debate over new taxes is set to take place in an arena of political uncertainty about the future of transit, given the resignation of Premier Dalton McGuinty. Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak has pledged to upload Toronto's rapid transit lines to Metrolinx and refocus investment on subways. Mr. Hudak has not yet taken a position on revenue tools such as a sales tax, but opposes road tolls. Metrolinx is legally obliged to release its recommendations on new tax measures by next June.

The Metrolinx findings are gloomier than the more recently commissioned Board of Trade/Globe poll, which showed that 34 per cent of residents were flatly against new taxes for transit while another 28 per cent strongly supported them.

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Toronto Board of Trade CEO Carol Wilding said in the year since Metrolinx conducted its public opinion research, congestion appears to have grown worse, resulting in mounting commuter stress levels. "It's become more and more challenging for people," she said. "That's actually helped bring the conversation [about revenue tools] out more."

The Metrolinx poll of 2,500 residents drawn from across the GTA and Hamilton was conducted by Environics in August and September of 2011. , well before the subway-vs-LRT battle at council earlier this year . The results have a 1.9 per cent margin of error, and are considered to be accurate 19 times out of 20.

The results show, geographically, there was more support in Toronto for general taxes compared to the 905 and Hamilton, where residents preferred user fees. But even in Toronto, measures like a sales or gas tax hike garnered little enthusiasm.

Other results were not surprising: the strongest backing for a parking levy and road tolls came from transit users and those who walk or cycle, while just 13 per cent of those who drive or carpool to work backed a gas tax.

According to the documents, "rejection of all four is most evident among those living in Hamilton and York Regions, drivers, older residents and those with lower socio-economic status."


The Big Sell

When Metrolinx last fall needed advice on how to sell tax tools needed to bankroll The Big Move, it asked the representatives of 21 regional stakeholder groups, including Civic Action, the Greater Toronto Airport Authority, seven regional chambers of commerce and TD Bank, according to a 14-page summary of focus-group sessions obtained by The Globe and Mail.

Their suggestions:

  • Avoid a referendum, as was done in Los Angeles in 2008, when voters there approved a half-cent sales tax hike to raise $40-billion over 30 years for transit and road improvements;
  • Present the public with a limited number of realistic funding options;
  • Rely on “a trusted leader who can promote the plan and encourage support”;
  • Earmark all new revenues to The Big Move capital projects;
  • And ensure an equal distribution of costs to “avoid the impression that one group or demographic is being unfairly targeted.”

Noted the report: "As unattractive as such charges may be to system users and taxpayers, one respondent states that, when pressed to make a 'choose your poison' decision, the public will co-operate as long as they know the reasons behind the fees."

But not everyone agreed. "One participant felt very strongly that it is too early to be having this type of funding conversation."

Another said: "We live in a bubble more and more. Our car is a bubble and when we target the bubble you get a lot of hostility."

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