Mr. Flaherty Discovers Union Station

Tuesday’s budget announcement from Ottawa didn’t surprise me one bit in virtually ignoring transit as a focus for economic stimulus.  Many cities may have a backlog of transit projects they would love to see funded, but most of these projects are well beyond the horizon of what we hope will be a modestly short recession.

Transit needs explicit, ongoing funding, not more one-off handouts because of an economic crisis or an MP/MPP with constituents to please.  Ottawa may come to the table with that some day, but Finance Minister Flaherty seems happy to crow about the gas tax and the GST rebate as if they were new money for cities.  They’re not, and the GST isn’t even vaguely linked to transit spending as one might hope for the gas tax.

Wednesday morning, we heard Flaherty on Metro Morning proclaiming that we would “finally” renovate Union Station to expand capacity.  The tone was of a long-suffering parent finally making good on their offspring’s profligate ways.

Someday, when the Finance Minister has more to do than announce trains for his riding (a proposal that seems to have dropped from view), he might learn that the City of Toronto and GO Transit are already partners in the Union Station renovation.  The details of this have been available on the City’s website for months.  “Now we’re going to take the lead Federally” says Flaherty to expand capacity at Union.

Some lead.  The feds will kick in $75-million, of which $25-million has been on the table snce 2000 as a pledge from Parks Canada for heritage restoration.  The total project is in the half-billion range (details will come out in a few months), and Ottawa’s contribution isn’t even close to the 1/3 level of funding everyone talks about for these partnerships.  For that contribution, Ottawa claims that this is now their project.

As usual, Flaherty dragged out that old chestnut about how if only cities (for which read “Toronto”) would manage their money better, all would be well.  Partnerships with the private sector would bring efficiencies and savings.  That record was broken months ago, and playing it again shows just how bankrupt the Tories are for real ideas.

We thank Mr. Flaherty for his $75-million, but hope that we actually see the money rather than endless bureaucracy to bless funding requests.  As for Flaherty himself, his attitude shows that the finger-in-your-eye style of November’s laughable financial update is alive and well in Ottawa.  Maybe he should be parked in a refurbished RDC in Peterborough waiting for the start of service to Toronto.

Earlier in the same program, I spoke about the budget’s implications for transit in Toronto.  My theme was the need for Toronto and Queen’s Park to stop linking transit plans to federal funding that never arrives.  If an enlightened government someday appears in Ottawa, the real need will be to increase dedicated, ongoing funding such as the gas tax, not project-based schemes that generates fees for engineers, consultants and bureaucrats in grant applications, but little real work.

Queen’s Park and Metrolinx dodged the whole issue of funding their regional plan.  No money will actually appear on the Ontario’s books until lines actually open, and the cost will then be treated as a mortgage, an ongoing debt to be paid down in decades to come.  Metrolinx, likely under Queen’s Park’s orders, played along and left the issue of revenue to pay for all this for the future (beyond the next election).

To its credit, the Metrolinx Board takes a more active stance, and the debates about road tolls, regional sales taxes, or any other alternatives will come sooner rather than later.  If we’re going to commit billions in debt to build all of this infrastructure, we need to commit revenue sources to pay the bills.  Assuming that natural economic growth will magically make the problem go away is a bankrupt policy as we see in every newspaper and every economic forecast.

Life is suddenly much harder for transportation Pooh-Bahs, and they will have to make hard decisions about where to spend money.  It’s easy to put big maps up on the wall while an appreciative crowd oos and ahs about their new transit network.  All those big announcements are a lot smaller than before, and the shortcomings in many plans will be glaringly obvious when we can’t pay for all of them.  Trade-offs and careful study are needed, and that takes more than a superficial road show.

Much energy will be wasted in coming months figuring out how to change Ottawa’s mind.  That may bear fruit in the long run, but we must start thinking about the alternatives.  We cannot put off forever building lines we have needed for a decade or more, and we must decide how, if Ottawa won’t help, we will build a network we can afford.