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Toronto faces spectre of another missed chance to rebuild transit

When reporters asked what he thought about new tolls or taxes to build transit, Mayor Rob Ford made his feelings clear. He bent over as if to throw up and made a retching noise. Many overburdened taxpayers will feel the same way about the prospect of handing over more of their hard-earned income. But what should really make Torontonians feel ill is the prospect of blowing another chance to build a big-city mass-transit system.

Toronto opened its last major subway line in 1966 when the Beatles were still together. Civic leaders have been talking for decades about the dreamed-of Downtown Relief Line. Relief never comes. It is our biggest civic failure and it could be our downfall.

Toronto is evolving from city to metropolis. It just passed Chicago in population to become the fourth biggest city in North America. Metrolinx head Bruce McCuaig notes that the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area is adding more than 100,000 people a year. Unless we can find a way to move people around efficiently, we will strangle on our own growth.

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Other world cities are making massive investments in high-level transit. Britain is spending a staggering $23-billion on the Crossrail line spanning London from east to west and designed to relieve crowding on the Tube. Seoul, which opened its first subway only in 1974, now has a web of nine lines over 327 kilometres of track, with three big expansion projects under way. Even Stockholm, with a population in its main urban area about half the size of Toronto's, has 100 Metro stations to Toronto's 69.

This city has been moving at a walk while others advance at a run. We simply can't afford to waste another generation.

Fortunately, we now have a real chance to move forward. Metrolinx, the provincial transit agency, has drawn up a comprehensive 25-year plan, The Big Move, to build out the transit system. It is about to present a plan on how to pay for it.

An energetic new Premier, Kathleen Wynne, seems determined to do something. She told CBC Radio's Metro Morning that Toronto can't wait another 25 years for progress. She is more open to new transit levies than any recent premier. For a minority leader under constant attack from her opponents, even to talk about new taxes is bold indeed. Bold leadership is what we need.

The time is ripe. With rising gridlock and more and more crowding on transit, a consensus is taking shape on the need for dramatic action. Civic leadership groups, from the board of trade to CivicAction, are lining up with demands for progress and plans to pay for it. At long last, we are having that "adult conversation" about transit funding that timorous politicians have avoided for so long.

Vancouver has a 17-cent transit tax on gas. Los Angeles voters approved a 0.5-per-cent hike in the sales tax to pay for transit.

Naturally, any new tax or levy will run into opposition, but what is the realistic alternative? Metrolinx needs $2-billion a year to pay for The Big Move. The left, under the NDP's Andrea Horwath, says it is unfair to make "everyday families" pay more. She'd like corporate taxation, or more money from Ottawa. But how likely is it that a federal government struggling to balance its books will come through with billions for transit? How sensible would it be to put a bigger burden on business in a struggling economy?

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The right, under Conservative Tim Hudak, says Queen's Park is spending too much already and should not even consider new taxes till it cuts waste. But even the toughest cost cutter would struggle to find enough savings in the budget to pay for the massive investment required for transit.

What makes transit levies more palatable than most is that they wouldn't go into the general trough. They would be dedicated exclusively to transportation needs. Rob Ford's retch notwithstanding, even the most hard-pressed drivers or strap-hangers might be able to stomach paying more if they could see the money going to tunnels, trains and roads.

What none of us can stomach is what will come from doing nothing.

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About the Author
Toronto columnist

Marcus Gee is Toronto columnist for the Globe and Mail, Canada's national newspaper.Born in Toronto, he graduated from the University of British Columbia in 1979 with a degree in modern European history, then worked as a reporter for The Province, Vancouver's morning newspaper. More


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