Paying the Piper

Now that Metrolinx and, presumably, their masters at Queen’s Park have determined that we will build a network of four LRT lines in Toronto, we can turn to the larger question of paying for “The Big Move” and the “Investment Strategy”.  Some Toronto Councillors are already talking about the need for dialogue with neighbouring municipalities in the 905 for a co-ordinated strategy on transit funding.  This is long overdue.

Once upon a time, the Metrolinx Board actually contained politicians, the very people who would undertake this sort of debate and who, when the going got rough, would have to stand up at public meetings defending the plan and dodging the rotten tomatoes.  Nobody on the current Metrolinx Board has to get elected even as dog catcher, much less as a mayor, and the staff are even further insulated by the fact that almost all of Metrolinx’ business takes place in the refined, quiet space of private meetings.

This is no way to build public support for anything.

The term “Investment Strategy” has a comforting feeling that plays to those who like to wrap public works in the mantle of private enterprise.  We will “invest” in the future of transit and of our region.  That’s fine as far as it goes, but “investment” implies capital, something notoriously absent from government accounts in part due to the economy, but in part to the fact we are loathe to tax ourselves for the services we want.  (Or slightly more accurately, we don’t want to pay taxes for services somebody else wants, but we think we will never use.)

One way or another, somebody has to pay to expand and improve transit service given decades of disinvestment in that field.  Toronto likes to think of itself as a “Transit City”, but in fact stopped investing at a rate needed to keep up with population and travel growth decades ago.

The Investment Strategy is often portrayed as something we have to study, to examine, to fathom the depths of public financial options, but, no, the numbers have been available for everyone to see for years.  Metrolinx produced its first report (one without the word “Draft” stamped on it) in June 2008.  It contained the following table showing the types of revenue stream that Metrolinx might tap.

ISTable2008

This was back in the days when we were only looking for $2-billion annually over 25 years for a $50-billion Big Move.  Since then, the actual budget has grown thanks to inflation, the recognition that some project estimates were low, the need to factor in operating costs and the likely demands to fund local transit agencies as part of the grand scheme.  We now hear numbers in the $75-100b range, and that will take a lot of tolls or taxes to pay off.

A more recent version of this table was produced in 2011 for the Civic Action Summit, but the changes lie mainly in the size of the numbers, not in the types of revenue.

TCSATable2011

The important work Metrolinx must perform is to produce the menu of projects and spending options for which any new revenue streams might be imposed.  To that end, the publication of an updated “Big Move” (not expected until late 2012) and the incorportation of spending options to support local transit are essential.

Moreover, Metrolinx must address jurisdictional issues between GO Transit and the TTC to reconcile demand and capacity problems for the core area.  If we are to collect billions in new taxes, they should not be wasted trying to stuff every available passenger into the Yonge Subway.  Some belong on a Downtown Relief Line (and a real relief line, one that goes north at least to Eglinton, not just to the Danforth subway), and many more belong on the many existing and potential GO rail corridors leading north out of downtown.

The GTA must understand what the real cost of bringing transit up to a competitive level where it will actually make inroads into car traffic in the 905, the sources of funding which might be used, and the limitations (financial and operational) on what can be done.  This type of integrated planning is glaringly absent from Metrolinx work over the past years.

The question of new taxes (by whatever name) is on the table, and the discussion must move into the political arena.  This is not a job for anonymous bureaucrats or a board of unknowns meeting in secret.  Indeed, any decision on the provincial side will be taken at Queen’s Park by the Cabinet and the Premier’s Office with Metrolinx providing a comforting rubber stamp and a patina of independence.

Toronto Council should take this debate not just to its own voters, but to the 905 regions so that we can all have an informed debate and build political support for improving transit.