Mark Romoff is the president and CEO of the Canadian Council for Public-Private Partnerships.
Sidewalk Labs, a subsidiary of Google parent company Alphabet, is undertaking a high-profile effort to revitalize Toronto’s undeveloped waterfront. Key tenants such as MaRS and the University of Toronto, which will anchor the proposed Waterfront Innovation Centre, are planning to come to the area. But for all the excitement over the details of the infrastructure planned for the proposed “smart” Quayside neighbourhood, world-class transit is just as necessary. Otherwise, the residents, businesses, startups, students and artists who want to call this new neighbourhood home won’t get the support they need.
To that end, the Waterfront Business Improvement Area advanced its case for a faster construction timeline for the Waterfront East LRT, with an ambitious completion date of 2025. But the process of developing transit infrastructure in Toronto is lagging decades behind, and tax dollars are currently (and rightly) going to priority projects such as the downtown relief line, Scarborough subway, and Yonge Street extension.
Toronto will miss the opportunity to truly develop the waterfront if we continue to rely on traditional solutions to infrastructure development. Fortunately, there are innovative finance and funding solutions that, with tools available to all three levels of government and in partnership with the private sector, can get the Waterfront LRT built by the 2025 goal.
It is conceivable to structure a deal that would see the private sector put significant funds of its own into building the LRT with some combination of a land-value capture model and fare revenue to make the project bankable. The land-value capture model is already being used by the Ontario government to build the Mimico GO Station, saving taxpayers millions.
The Canada Infrastructure Bank (CIB) is looking to fill the viability gap in projects with revenue-generating potential, and the LRT could be a project worth their consideration. The idea behind the CIB is to use the fewest taxpayer dollars possible to bring major projects to market, which is good news for all Canadians.
From a procurement perspective, Infrastructure Ontario is already a recognized global leader in public-private partnerships and has a strong record of on-time and on-budget performance, while ensuring a fair, open, competitive and transparent process. Adopting this approach ensures the Waterfront LRT project will deliver the very best deal for taxpayers. The debate around Sidewalk Labs and ideas put on the table should be part of the discussion, and part of a broader debate on who has the best vision to bring world class transit to the waterfront.
While the three levels of government would need to sort out the finer details, this approach would reduce the need for taxpayers to shoulder the burden and enable numerous benefits to accrue to citizens. These include lowering greenhouse gas emissions, increasing productivity, creating jobs and housing stock along the Waterfront East LRT corridor. At this stage, all options should remain on the table.
According to the Waterfront BIA report, delaying the LRT until 2045 could cost an estimated 100 million person-hours and billions in lost tax revenue: approximately $3.8-billion for the province, $9-billion for the federal government and $10-billion in potential municipal property taxes.
It is not often that a city has a chance to successfully and completely transform a former industrial space into a vibrant home for tens of thousands of new residents and next-generation tech companies, while growing its tax base by billions. Access to reliable transit is an important springboard for that success, however, and innovative infrastructure solutions are needed to make it a reality. All eyes are on Toronto – and this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity cannot be missed.