Los Angeles vs Toronto: Funding and Building a Transit Network

Something is definitely in the air in Toronto, and it’s not just the unusually early arrival of spring and tree pollen.  Suddenly, everyone is talking about transit expansion, and of paying for it with real money, not the fairy dust of “private sector” investment.

The latest installment comes thanks to Los Angeles of all places, a city-region with the political will and leadership to actually build rather than to whine endlessly about how they can’t afford to do anything unless some other government picks up the tab.

Back in early April, John Lorinc wrote in the Globe about the LA transit plan and the funding — a dedicated regional half-percent sales tax — that underpins the whole scheme.  Two weeks later, Richard Katz was in Toronto talking about transit funding.  Katz is an advisor to Mayor Villaraigosa, chair of the regional commuter rail system, Metrolink, and a member of the LA County Metropolitan Transportation Authority board.

Katz is an entertaining speaker, and his background as a California legislator responsible for important measures addressing transportation problems gives him a depth of experience with no equivalent in Toronto.  His presentation covered a lot of ground, although it ran into swampland toward the end trying to explain how the financing schemes would work.

A few key issues need to be mentioned up front:

  • Political leadership, transparency and inclusiveness are essential.  Without a major figure like Mayor Villaraigosa championing the program, transportation improvements and funding for them would never get the broad political support needed.  Plans have to be public and their benefits to a wide variety of communities well-understood.
  • Los Angeles didn’t start to focus on transit yesterday, but started its rapid transit program in the 1990s.  At that point, the work was ridiculed in some quarters as a waste of money, but it built the foundation for a broader network.
  • LA’s half-cent sales tax, the subject of much recent comment in Toronto, is only one of several revenue sources for both capital and operating dollars.  Indeed, there were two other half-cent taxes (for a total of 1½%) already in place, and the mechanism is familiar to voters.

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