The City of Toronto’s consultations about transportation plans and financing continued on the evening of March 4, 2013, with a panel discussion at the St. Lawrence Centre. The 500-seat Jane Mallett Theatre was packed for the event, and had been sold out for several days in advance.
The participants were:
- Matt Galloway, host of CBC’s “Metro Morning”, as moderator
- Jennifer Keesmaat, Chief Planner of Toronto
- Larry Beasley, retired Chief Planner for Vancouver, keynote speaker
- Carol Wilding, president and CEO of the Toronto Board of Trade
- Councillor Peter Milczyn, chair of Toronto’s Planning & Growth Management Committee and member of the Toronto Transit Commission
- Councillor Michael Thompson, chair of Toronto’s Economic Development Committee
- John Howe, Vice-President, Investment Strategy and Project Evaluation at Metrolinx
The most newsworthy comments of the evening were a clear break by the two Councillors, both members of Mayor Ford’s Executive Committee, with the Mayor’s position on financing transit. Michael Thompson stated that getting rid of the Vehicle Registration Tax was “a mistake”, and Peter Milczyn stated that Council (by implication with or without the Mayor) would approve “a suite” of tools to generate the needed revenue.
The message that “the people are ahead of the politicians” on transit financing, first raised by Carol Wilding, was a consistent theme.
Updated Mar. 5, 2013 at 11:10 am:
Although Larry Beasley’s thesis was that Moscow was trapped in an inescapable hole caused by decades of inaction on transit investment, this information appears to be out of date. As one commenter here has noted, since the arrival of a new mayor and the availability of petrodollars, a lot has been happening. This can also be seen by a cursory trip around the internet looking at the Moscow system.
Yes, the hole they have to dig out of was very deep, but they’re trying. Toronto has not yet really acknowledged the effort needed not just to arrest the decline, but to make up for decades when transit wasn’t “important enough” beyond fighting over a vanity subway line or two.
Jennifer Keesmaat led off with an introductory talk about the City’s review of its Official Plan and the critical issue of how to finance transit. As already reported here in a previous article, Phase 1 of the process runs to the end of March when staff will recommend to Council the tools that should be endorsed as part of the regional Metrolinx Investment Strategy. Phase 2 will follow with identification of priority projects and refinement of policies. Phase 3 will produce the recommended project list and link reduction of congestion to funding tools. All of this will take place, in theory, by the beginning of 2014.
Keesmaat is still touting the standard argument that reduction of congestion is the goal, but we have known ever since The Big Move was published by Metrolinx that the best we can hope for is to manage congestion and the effects of growth, not eliminate it. She also raised the question of goods movement and the role of the road network.
This is an undercurrent in many discussions, and could be a Trojan horse used by advocates of car-oriented projects. What is still missing is a recognition that the balance between roads, transit, cycling and pedestrians varies across the city, and the presence of a 16-lane expressway in one part of town does not imply that entire city should be bulldozed in the name of faster trucking. Indeed, the trucking needs vary from one area to another, and the densely developed residential and commercial areas do not have the same needs as an industrial park.
Keesmaat noted that Toronto has been successful in directing growth to areas identified in the Official Plan. That’s good as far as it goes, but this misses two key points. First, many of those areas would have grown anyhow whether the OP flagged them or not. Second, the OP may have identified transit corridors and hoped to sustain growth with new routes, but in fact Toronto has built little to support the premise that transit will be integral to the City’s growth. The most flagrant example is on the waterfront, but we also risk increased density on major corridors without a commitment to increased transit service or infrastructure. This inactivity feeds directly into public skepticism about new transit plans.
Keesmaat noted that growth should be directed, and land use should be organized to reduce the need for movement — be it commuting for work and education, or to leisure activities. However, changing existing land use and travel patterns on that scale takes a generation or more, and the established city is self-reinforcing. Downtown is and will remain downtown. Universities will not move to new locations to suit the convenience of transit planners or the aspirations of every municipality. Industrial uses will remain where they have good transportation, almost certainly road-oriented.
The Feeling Congested website has had over 10,000 hits and there have been 6,000 responses to its questionnaire. (The hit count seems rather low considering that a site like mine goes through that many in less than a week. The number may actually refer to unique visitors.) Keesmaat reported that feedback from consultations shows that people want a clear link between new revenue and actual building, and that improvement of the travel experience (for which read quality and quantity of service) must improve. The site remains open for responses until March 15.
Keesmaat concluded by saying that there is an “enormous appetite for tangible outcomes”, and that people want “more pleasure” in their everyday lives.
Larry Beasley echoed the mood of the evening in saying that it’s about time we have this conversation, and then launched into a defense of land use planning as the best way to plan transit. Proximity is the best solution with diversity in choices of modes for movement. People will choose their travel mode trip by trip, but policies should encourage and support movement by walking, cycling, transit, goods movement and last by automobile. There will be less space for cars, but they won’t disappear. He lauded what Toronto has already done with its directed growth (see above), increased densities, strong transit ridership and high cost recovery (which Beasley sees as a mark of a health transit system, not of a skinflint collection of funding partners).
Toronto has a very different transportation problem than other North American cities, one that is harder to cope with, and Beasley calls this “the Moscow syndrome”. Beasley has worked in that city in its attempt to come to grips with rising transit demand and strangling congestion, but Moscow faces the result of 20 years during which nothing was invested in the system after the fall of the Soviet system. The transit network has very high daily ridership, the urban structure encourages walking and transit trips, but things are coming apart at the seams. A trip to the airport takes three hours in traffic, and crowd control measures are needed on the transit system. There is not enough money for any projects, and governments have been in a collective denial about the scope of the problem.
There are universal truths — transportation needs cannot be sustained just on automobiles. Auto investment leads to increased use, and in Moscow’s economic climate, to exponential growth. Failure to invest leads to a decline in transit’s attractiveness and falling riding, and the longer this persists, the harder it is to catch up. Moscow planners have no idea how to get control of the situation. The dysfunctional network makes the city less competitive and economic development incentives don’t work because they cannot overcome fundamental transportation problems.
Moscow offers a lesson to Toronto. We are not as far down this path, but the symptoms are there for anyone to see. Moscow’s experience confirms that this is not about choosing one funding source, but all that are available. The debate will be over timing and ordering of new revenues (some are easier to implement both organizationally and politically), what Beasley called a “choreography of spending”.
There are basic consumer trends that must be recognized:
- People have a high expectation of what they will consume, that they have a good experience, and that service (in this case) transit must be there. Who provides it is secondary to its actually existing.
- People are fed up with government’s loss of control.
- People will avoid what they don’t have to pay for, but will pay for what they want.
- People will pay up front if they have a guarantee of delivery at the promised quality.
- People will always compare new costs with what they face now and will regard new transit spending (at a presumed $600/person/year) as “not that big a deal”.
- People want to be involved in the decisions.
Beasley had a set of recommendations for Toronto:
- We must go further to get integrated planning across the region and across transportation modes.
- Citizens must be involved for widespread understanding and acceptance of plans.
- There must be an air tight guarantee of directed spending, and a citizens’ “bill of rights” for mobility.
- Key decisions should be made directly by the electorate. Direct democracy is messy and should be saved for fundamental issues. There needs to be advocacy for new plans including information on the effect of doing nothing or of various approaches to balance between modes. Trust in the wisdom of the people and engage them in the debate.
Beasley noted that extra charges could be used to discourage unwanted practices, while discounts could be used as incentives for desired behaviours. He then undercut his own thesis by proposing that the wealthy could buy the right to park and this revenue could be used to subsidize transit for the needy. Density bonusing could be formally on sale with extra revenues going to fund transit investment.
Well, no. If parking is bad, it does not matter whether you can buy your way to paradise. As for density, if your Official Plan says that an area should grow at a certain density, then buying your way out of that constraint makes the “planning” irrelevant. Moreover, fast turnover of land near new transit lines is not guaranteed as we have seen in Toronto. This is not just a question of bad planning by Toronto (look at the long-dormant “Etobicoke Centre” at the six points, or the lack of development around the Spadina subway), but of the basic fact that “the market” builds where there is a demand and a profit to be made.
Toronto must plot out a pro-active strategy and plan for growth or we will not stay as an “A-league city”. Toronto has to pay for what it needs. There may be some money in budgetary savings and “waste”, but this is nowhere near enough. New money is needed, and Toronto should borrow now against future revenue to deliver improvements quickly. Get on with the job, and flag anyone who stalls the process and the cost of delay.
The Panel Discussion
Matt Galloway directed a series of questions to the panel.
To Carol Wilding: What has the Board of Trade been doing? Public engagement has been ongoing for over a year, and the public, including the business community, is ahead of the politicians who may be unwilling to seize the issue. People are fed up with policy “zigzags”, constant changes of direction, and there is a real sophistication in understanding issues and costs. Galloway replied that polls show that huge numbers of people don’t know what is going on with planning. Wilding observed that there is a “range of understanding” but people are ready for decisions.
To John Howe: Nobody knows what The Big Move is. Metrolinx is a young agency, only five years old, but they have an integrated plan. What is needed is a better communications job, and a desire to think and act as a region. Galloway again: but many don’t know about this. Howe: we are building already and we need to sell what we are doing.
At this point I must offer an observation of my own. Metrolinx repeatedly trots out the $16-billion in projects now underway as an example that “things are happening”. The problem is that the majority of this money has not yet been spent and there is some concern whether the first tier of projects will all be built, or at least funded from general revenues as originally announced, thanks to ongoing deferral of actual spending by Queen’s Park. As for the individual projects, a great deal of this is out of sight to most people.
- The Spadina subway extension, a project launched before Metrolinx even existed, has major construction effects on the areas through which it passes, but is otherwise of little concern to most of the GTHA.
- The Eglinton LRT project has not progressed beyond construction of the access pit at Black Creek Drive.
- Construction at Union Station is a constant reminder for GO Transit riders and for people who work or travel near Front and Bay, but is unknown beyond there.
- Work on the Union Pearson Express affects those along the corridor, but few others.
- Work on busways in Mississauga and in York Region similarly affects the immediate vicinity of the works, but nobody else.
The GTHA is a big place, and if we were to draw a map showing where work is actually underway and visible, there would be a lot of white space.
To Jennifer Keesmaat: The same issue — a large number of people don’t know what’s going on. The City’s consultation rounds are intended to get the message out, and talk about the City’s role and its future. Movement must be refined around pedestrians, cycling and transit. Toronto is part of a regional framework, but this won’t necessarily mesh with the City’s plans. Toronto is already a large region on its own crushed under the weight of its amalgamation.
To Carol Wilding: What about a “Toronto first” outlook? Wilding’s definition is much broader than borders. She agrees with Keesmaat that there is a micro conversation about the City of Toronto and active transportation, but there are also discussions around the region.
To John Howe: How does Toronto thrive in this context? Howe feels that for the region to work, there must be a strong Toronto. However, there are 6.6m people in the region and travel across regional boundaries is common. This misses the whole point that we are supposed to be encouraging local demand, but recogizes that regional demand isn’t going away soon.
Jennifer Keesmaat observed that creating places to live in Hamilton while working in Toronto will cost a lot to support, and we will fail. We need local transit, closely spaced stations for easy access and neighbourhood hubs. A network designed around long-distance movement will not provide this.
Peter Milczyn felt that there is too much parochial talk about “fair shares” in any planning. He would like his constituents (in Etobicoke) to be able to move around the region into Brampton or Markham, say. Local land use should support good transit access and compact urban nodes. Toronto has done a bad job with nodes notably at subway stations. Metrolinx is a new agency — can/will they do better?
Michael Thompson wants to look at the region in its entirety. It takes someone three hours to get downtown from Malvern. We need to look at everyone’s needs and all of the transportation network. He remembers when the zone fare paid at Don Mills and Eglinton was eliminated, but also when stickers on transit vehicles proclaimed that they were funded by the Province of Ontario. How can we connect local neighbourhoods into the system. The public needs more say at both the local and regional levels.
Matt Galloway asked Thompson whether he would ask voters to support transit funding in the coming election. He replied that he is in favour of distance based fares, and that his constituents would pay this if only they can get service. What else beyond fares? A sales tax seems to be a very appropriate tool.
Peter Milczyn prevers a parking levy because this links bad land use to the cost of providing transportation.
Galloway: Is there the political will? Milczyn replied that the status quo isn’t working. How much of an obstruction is the Mayor? Milczyn calmly but forcefully replied that “Council will speak”. In the past administration [Miller], there was no linkage between new taxes (Land Transfer and Vehicle Registration taxes) and outcomes. Now that we are delivering on new transit investment, the debate will shift. Michael Thompson spoke of the need for leadership. This is not just about travel, but the loss of competitiveness in Toronto. The view that we can have affordable transit without paying for it no longer holds, but we must show people what they can have and make a realistic presentation of the options.
Galloway: How do you counter people who are opposed to the plans or the spending? Michael Thompson replied that at the end of the day, we have to look at the future of the city and make tough decisions. Does this mean something to people now? You can’t have it both ways — this is not realistic. Leadership requires that we let people know somebody has to pay for transit.
On the “choreography of spending”, Larry Beasley explained that some sources are easy to implement, some more painful. Road and bridge tolls faced stiff opposition in Vancouver. If you start with easier sources and build something, then there will be greater reception for additional revenue sources. We must be specific about phasing, project costs and the actual cost/person.
Carol Wilding agreed saying that the conversation is about the appetite for funding tools. Everybody has to sacrifice, and there are many examples of urban centres who have already done this.
Jennifer Keesmaat noted that bringing people into the conversation with good information and analysis yields benefits, builds trust and gives politicians information for discussions with their constituents. She reported a recent conversation with Mississauga Mayor Hazel McCallion who urged using the revenue tool cities already have — property taxes.
Matt Galloway asked John Howe about the issue of charging for parking at GO lots. Howe replied that Metrolinx must report by June 1 with a recommended set of tools for 25 years and beyond. We are one of the last urban regions without dedicated funding tools. Direct funding from governments doesn’t work any more as they are already “tapped out”. But what if parking charges drive people away from transit? People don’t want to feel that we are targeting just one segment for new revenue. A mix of user fees, “everybody pays” taxes such as sales tax, and beneficiary levies (such as development charges) are all needed. Moreover, we shouldn’t just build transit but also walking and parking for access.
Larry Beasley noted that good transit station integration with access to neighbourhoods are needed.
Peter Milczyn noted that when the TTC started to charge for parking, transit riding went up and parking use went down to the point that some property is now being redeveloped for housing right on the subway’s doorstep. If people don’t want to pay for parking, they won’t get anywhere fast by driving rather than by taking transit. What about pedestrians and cyclists? The city has a responsibility to provide infrastructure and space, and must also look after road improvements and maintenance.
What about the polarized conversation of roads versus transit? Michael Thompson felt that Toronto is “getting there” on this topic, but we will continue to be a car-friendly city for a long time. We rely on the auto industry for economic activity. Galloway: What does this have to do with getting around — if there are fewer cars there is more opportunity for better transit, cycling and public realm improvements. Thompson noted that autos won’t disappear overnight.
Larry Beasley pointed out that in 10 years, at most, automobiles will be “clean”, and the pollution argument will go away. The demand for personal mobility will continue to rise, and we need to manage cars more aggressively than ever. They are only one of the movement choices. Pedestrian and cycling facilities are too often “value engineered” out of projects, and these modes need to have a guaranteed source of funds. The focus is on transit because that’s where the big problem is seen.
John Howe noted that 25% of the proposed Next Wave revenue stream will go to local projects including active transportation. Jennifer Keesmaat replied that the challenge is where this 25% is used — for example there is no public realm budget for the Eglinton corridor — and that there is a gap between statements and the reality of what is planned. Who pays for what remains an issue (and by implication especially if Metrolinx downloads some aspects of transit projects into that local 25%). Keesmaat felt that money should be provided for a cross-city cycling track across Eglinton.
Should we put these questions to the public? Peter Milczyn wondered whether we have the time or the leadership for such a campaign. Los Angeles had a mayor as leader of the transit tax referendum, but Milczyn was unsure that Toronto has this leadership. We know what the problem is, what the solutions are, and there is the political will to proceed. The 2014 election will be the plebiscite. Larry Beasley felt that this audience was “the converted”, and these policies need a deep constituency. It’s basic democracy and a stronger way to build support. Michael Thompson agreed that consultation with residents is needed, but many of his constituents say “just act”. Carol Wilding said that from a business perspective, there is a need to consult, but businesses don’t want more and just want politicians to get on with the job. Anyone who says “I don’t like that” must be challenged for an alternative. Saying “I won’t pay” is not acceptable any more. What more incentive do we need beyond the $6-billion annual cost of congestion?
As a wrap up question, Matt Galloway asked what sign people who are not at this meeting will have that action is here. John Howe: We are building already, and this is the launching pad for the next wave of tools. Carol Wilding: The Board of Trade will come out with a narrow set of tools and a shift in focus to specifics from the general discussion. Peter Milczyn noted that the city’s consultation on revenue tools will come to Council for a decision soon.
Jennifer Keesmaat felt that the conversation should be “unending but evolving”, and without it we will miss a deep understanding among the public. We must hold politicians accountable. The conversation is very different from three years ago and we are now talking about how to pay for transit. A charter is needed setting out what the City of Toronto will commit to with new revenue tools, and we must build trust with the public.
Michael Thompson reiterated the need for leadership. This is a time to act. Although there is a lot of work in progress, the public doesn’t know about it and we must demonstrate what is going on. Where will this leadership come from? From the people and from Council.
Larry Beasley argued that if in three months everybody adopted the same citizens’ bill of rights for mobility that would give a guarantee that we will deliver to a common commitment.
Questions From the Floor
Will electric vehicles (unspecified) be included as a transportation mode. From Thompson and Milczyn, “yes”, although it is unclear just what this means.
The elephant in the room is Rob Ford. What will Council do to get “Ford Nation” to open their eyes that the Mayor’s hope for private funding with no new taxes won’t work. Peter Milczyn replied that Council will approve a transportation plan and a funding plan — there will be a majority in support. Michael Thompson said that the fact we (the Councillors) are here should send a strong message about support for this direction. Milczyn said that we have had a lot of drama that is entertaining, annoying and frustrating, but not much is slowing down. Thompson observed that there has been no response from the private sector on funding and this is not a reality. Part of the process will be to change the dialogue to realistic options.
A student from York University (who took only one hour to get downtown from the campus!) spoke as a suburbanite wanting to keep what they have. Does user pricing mean that we will segregate populations by tolls and distance-based transit fares? Where does local funding come in? Jennifer Keesmaat replied that The Big Move is looking region-wide, but we don’t want to create unintended consequences. When we look at projects for Toronto, there may be a gap with what Metrolinx is doing, and planners need to work with Council on filling that gap for specific projects. We must avoid the consequences of selective application of revenue tools across the region. John Howe felt that regional benefits should be “equitable” without explaining just how this would be measured given that spending in one location may benefit residents elsewhere.
In the GTA, there are 15,000 condos built each year representing a $40b investment over 10 years. The transit investments proposed are much smaller, relatively, than we are making this out to be. If the problem is $6b in lost economic activity, how do you solve this with only $2b in annual investment? Who will stand up and say this is not enough, let’s spend $40b in the next 10 years. Carol Wilding replied that we need to get the money, and a different suite of tools is needed to get more. She noted that Los Angeles tried to accelerate its multi-decade program. Do we need to be more ambitious? John Howe replied that we need to manage expectations. We are not going to eliminate congestion, only manage it to a reasonable level.
Toronto is seeing corridor development, but it should use buses, not surface rail. Users should pay through fares, and there should be higher gas tax. Carol Wilding replied that through consultations, the Board of Trade concluded that a combination of tools is needed. One “user pay” mechanism won’t get us where we are going.
The “weak mayor” system guarantees poor leadership and candidates. How do we get a discussion of this? Peter Milczyn replied that Council has all the discretion they need about how to spend. We have state of good repair and expansion issues, and these are better addressed on a regional basis than by individual municipalities. Michael Thompson warned that we must be careful what we wish for, that the “wrong person” could wind up in power. The Council system works, it is collegial, and members work through challenges. Thompson is not supportive of a “strong mayor” system.
Twenty-five percent of the city is paved (roads, parking lots). Should there be a progressive gas tax to penalize cars? Jennifer Keesmat replied that it makes sense that users pay. Peter Milczyn noted that in some jurisdictions, a vehicle tax is based on engine size. John Howe cautioned that gas tax is not a robust revenue source as consumption is falling as people switch to more efficient vehicles. This is not necessarily a long term tool.
Do politicians have to go against the oil industry to increase taxes on cars? Most folks would hate a toll, but if it is just added to their fuel bill it would be easier. Larry Beasley replied that gas tax is “a damn good idea” for the near future because it causes costs to the user and can shift demand. However, we should not fall into “one source” funding and need a robust bundle of tools.
A Vancouver study showed that the public subsidy of cars amounts to about $2,700 per car per year. Is there the political will to address these cost, and what will Council do to reinstate the Vehicle Registration Tax? Michael Thompson replied that it was “an absolute mistake” to remove the VRT. Many of his residents didn’t really mind paying it, but if asked “should we get rid of it” were more than happy for the savings. How will people be confident that there won’t be a future rollback of transit revenues as a tax cut? Thompson replied that given the need for better transportation and funding tools, this is something we must not do. The mistake won’t be made again “at least not by me”.
Peter Milczyn argued that there will be a suite of new levies, but these will be dedicated to transportation. The old VRT went into general revenue, an error of “the previous administration”, and that a general tax generates general discontent. People will accept a specific tax. (I could not help thinking that if this is the fig leaf needed to get Ford supporters to embrace a Miller era tax, so be it.)
There is a lack of cycling infrastructure. One quarter of the new revenue stream will go to local projects, but what proportion within this goes to active transportation? Jennifer Keesmaat replied that this is essential, and Peter Milczyn confirmed that this will be part of the overall Official Plan, and should be included in a mobility bill of rights.
What will be the effects of the new tools on those with lower incomes, and what guarantee is there that businesses will pay too? Jennifer Keesmaat replied that on a regional basis the city has a high business assessment and this is a risk flagged by the commercial real estate industry. However, Toronto has very low property taxes and has more room on this side. Carol Wilding noted that this is an issue in addition to the ongoing migration of employment lands to residential use. Businesses are ready to pay their share, and the key is to avoid too much distortion in the market.
Twenty five years ago, the same issues were being discussed at public meetings. The greatest concentration of development is downtown. What is being done about more capacity and the ability to get around? The Moscow syndrome is here already. People won’t come downtown because of congestion. John Howe replied that The Big Move has advanced the “relief line” for more access to downtown, the UPX will provide a direct link to the airport by 2015, and the passenger concourse for GO at Union Station will be expanded to three times its current size.
There are workers in skilled trades all over the city working on transit projects. They are having the same discussion about how to fund future projects and jobs. An educated workforce will support the politicians, and workers understand that they need to contribute to future jobs. By analogy to Los Angeles, will large infrastructure projects be used for job creation in “at risk” communities? Michael Thompson talked about the City of Toronto’s strategy to bring young people into the trades through public projects.
There is a lot of asking (consultation), but not a lot of telling (education) people about what is going on. Does Metrolinx have a plan to bring the public onside? John Howe talked about consultations now in progress including a residents reference panel. A public campaign through advertising will begin soon. Larry Beasley urged that education should not get lost in consultation.
The need for real movement on network planning and funding is beyond question except, possibly, to those misguided politicians who hate taxes and who prefer to play to those voters who can be sold a something-for-nothing view of the future.
What is needed is for politicians at City Hall and at Queen’s Park to focus on getting new revenue tools and credible plans in place rather than working on each other’s defeat.