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marcus gee

For years now, people have been saying we need to have an adult conversation about how to pay for better transit in Toronto. Well, we're having it now. The city is buzzing with talk about revenue streams and dedicated taxes.

City Hall is in the first phase of an elaborate, three-part consultation exercise designed to wake Torontonians up to the transit challenge and get them to help choose how – or whether – they want to be taxed. It's called Feeling Congested? Toronto Talks Transportation, and organizers have been holding public meetings around the city.

Metrolinx, the provincial transit agency, has been holding parallel roundtables, called Join the Big Conversation. The Toronto Region Board of Trade is promising to "advance the conversation" by backing a preferred set of revenue tools – taxes, to you and me – to pay for transit. The Greater Toronto CivicAction Alliance has a campaign called "What would you do with 32?" that invites people to think about all the time they could save – 32 minutes, on average – if we build more transit and prevent commuting gridlock.

Is any of this really going to make any difference? To look on the bright side for a minute, it's encouraging that so much energy is going into a search for solutions to what is perhaps Toronto's biggest challenge for the coming decades: how to avoid strangling on its own growth.

All these talking shops spring from a broad, now nearly universal, consensus that the city has dropped the ball on transportation. Traffic congestion is growing. The TTC is bursting at the seams. Across the city you hear the cry: something must be done. "For too long, we have been teased with lofty plans and colourful presentations that ended up collecting dust on government shelves," board of trade chief executive Carol Wilding wrote in The Globe and Mail earlier this month.

One of those plans, Metrolinx's Big Move, is priced at a staggering $34-billion. How on Earth does a province that is struggling with high debt and deficits, or a city that is fighting to control costs, come up with that kind of money?

At a Feeling Congested? meeting at City Hall this week, participants were asked to place a green sticker beside the funding option they preferred. Sales tax? Parking levy? Property-tax increase? Highways tolls?

It is surely a good thing that people are being invited to have a say on this crucial question, especially considering that it could cost them a lot of money. Raising the $2-billion a year needed for the Big Move would ding the average household $600 if it was done through a hike in the personal income tax.

Eventually, though, small groups of concerned citizens will not make this call. Political leaders will. Are they bold enough to tell voters: I will tax you for better transit? Kathleen Wynne, the new Premier, gave some reason for hope when she said recently that she was willing to consider new revenue sources to pay for transit, even if it involved "political risk." Tim Hudak, the Tory leader, was more careful when he spoke to the board of trade on Wednesday. He said he wanted to root out waste in the provincial government before asking taxpayers for more money. But he also said in the cold type of a news release that, when that was done, he would seek advice from voters on a "clear, dedicated, predictable source of funding."

A hopeful person would note that at least all of the talk is heading in the same direction – toward a recognition that government will have to raise more money to pay for transit and that some sort of dedicated tax or levy, directed specifically and solely to transit projects, is the way to go. A cautious person would note that, so far, it is all just talk.