Monday, February 06, 2012

Funding Toronto’s TTC Takes Courage and Action

The TTC is in crisis.

The politicians busy themselves tinkering, fighting petty political wars, ignoring the exploding condo population, pretending fares and a few developers can fund public transit; they delude themselves into thinking a streetcar line here, a pseudo-subway (pdf) there on the outskirts will solve the capacity and service crisis. They completely and utterly forget that the TTC (Toronto Transit  Commission) itself said a subway line along Queen would make money (pdf). Meanwhile, they refuse to discuss transit funding in any sensible or bold way. We have a Mayor who heard the people say we want subways, yet insisted the TTC be included in the across-the-board ten percent funding cut. We have City Councillors squabbling about whose plan is better, the Left or the Right’s, and mocking “the other side’s” funding strategy to the point that I wish a pox on both their houses. They forget that public transit benefits all in their territorial spats; the more transit, the faster the transit, the better. As Josh Fullan said:
“Democracy and politics are the enemy of transit infrastructure.
I need this in my ward is not an effective way to build transit across the city.”
One former Mayoralty candidate, Sarah Thomson, was the only politician who recognized the crisis during the last municipal election and daringly spoke about funding. After she bowed out, I thought that with the weenies we have existing on Council and newly on Council, that would be the end of funding talk.

But no!

I was thrilled to read on Twitter that she was hosting a Toronto Town Hall on TTC Funding on Feb 1st. I went.

The Town Hall comprised a panel of John Tory, Josh Fullan, and Steve Munro – who answered questions given alternately by Thomson and TTC Chair Karen Stintz – and a hall packed with Torontonians, including a couple of Councillors and a former politician (Shelley Carroll, Adam Vaughan, Ron Kantor). Torontonians, Ontarians, and Canadians mayn’t be thrilled about funding public transit beyond fares, but the Town Hall proved they know the TTC is in crisis, proved everyone but our leaders know we need to talk funding, proved we may hold our noses but we know we must fund the TTC better. It’s a bad day for politics when the people lead. But this may have been – I hope! – a good day for the TTC.

The main message: fund the TTC consistently, continuously, predictably in a way that’s understood so that our city works again.

John Tory Speaks at TTC Funding Town Hall

Who Should Pay?

As Tory said, no option should be taken off the table before the discussion even begins. Options include road tolls, payroll taxes, parking levies, HST, municipal bonds, developer fees, Alternative Financing and Procurement (AFP) model, and so on. Steve pointed out that transit benefits everyone in the region, for it allows people to move around. But funding sources must not target those who can never benefit. The problem is that senior governments are also being pressured to fund health care and education and social services. The other problem is that funding ought to improve service so that everyone sees what better transit looks like and so would not grouse “why should I pay?!”

As Munro said, what we don’t want to do is stay in our current cycle: spend five years begging and borrowing, build half a line, fight over where the next line is to be built, repeat. The cycle is so long that every level of government has gone out of power and even come back in before one new subway stop is built. Meanwhile fare increases bring in only millions when subway expansions require billions.

It is impossible for TTC users, through the fare box, to fund transit expansion. Everyone knows that. It’s time our leaders stopped pretending fares and one-time only funding will. Even Tory’s CFRB listeners aren’t happy with the idea but believe that funding should be regional as the region benefits. 905ers come in to Toronto to work and play; Toronto’s economy drives Ontario’s engine. Doing it as a region doesn’t divide people, and we “don’t get bogged down by who pays what,” said Tory. “It’s a false argument.” And Munro agreed completely, much to the audience’s amused surprise.

Revenue Tools

The panellists didn’t come down hard for one tool over another, other than public ones ought to be regional and they must be reliable. Munro noted that revenue tools are a function of the city and its history. In BC, because hydro funded transit, hydro levies were used. In the US, sales tax referenda are common. The problem we’re having in Ontario is that senior governments love to announce mega-projects then forget about them.
“No one holds a press conference to say the Queen car ran on time today.”
That got Munro laughs, but we all knew that event would be worthy of a press conference.

Although Fullan and Tory believed it’s possible to have a dedicated tool, Munro was skeptical. Tory countered with the idea of putting a “flinty-eyed accountant” in charge of a trust fund that is dedicated and audited and which is seen to go wholly to transit. Fullan noted tools like road tolls, congestion charges, and parking levies are more clearly linked to transit than others (like HST levies or a payroll tax). Tory noted that municipal bonds are just debt, and it’s a mistake to rely totally on private or development options. Instead, look at them as part of the mix.

Fullan related how Paris needed relief lines on the edges of its city and imposed a payroll tax for four or five years to fund it, the time it took to build beautiful tramways with grass medians and sprinklers on the tracks.  The idea is to have a revenue tool that ends once expansion is done. But how can that work here, I wonder, when we are three decades behind, have insufficient capacity for our downtown, which isn’t even being acknowledged, and completely inadequate service in much of the city right to its very borders? Whatever tool we choose – and a menu of tools may be best – it needs to be chosen in the full knowledge that it is forever.

Fares

No one talked about how high fares have become or the ridiculousness of the fare box funding more of the TTC than any fare box does in any other city, other than to say that fare increases cannot even get close to funding transit expansion. They also did not discuss lower fares for low-income people as is provided to Calgarians.

They all agreed that fare hikes need to be incremental and predictable (eg, it’s January 1, time for a fare hike.) That way they will become practically invisible (uh-huh, to the comfortable but not to those who count their pennies and check their schedules to see how many fewer trips they need to take now with the latest fare increase and which social or medical appointments they can cancel – or to those who are paying more for their bus to still arrive late).

They agreed too about at the very least discussing zone fares, which the TTC had up until 1973. But Fullan was concerned that zone fares may further divide our city. Not a good thing.

National Transit Strategy

National transit strategy would be the grown-up in the room and calm the nuttiness we see now,” said Fullan.

The TTC would be “competing with health, education, and social services,” noted Munro.

We’re the “only major western country that has no federal involvement….and sporadic involvement is almost worse than none,” said Tory.

It is stupid that our federal government won’t get involved with transit. Many opine that Prime Minister Stephen Harper is former President George W. Bush lite. But Bush funded subway expansion in many US cities. Bush was all about the economy. If someone who is seen by many as slow yet connected the dots between rapid transit and a healthier economy, how come Harper cannot?

Tory believes we’ll see one in 18 months. 

Referendum

Tory is all for a referendum; Fullan is ambivalent; Munro sees complications of confusing specifics of a plan with the general idea of funding.

If there is a referendum held, the question should have a “binary answer,” as Fullan put it. The answer is either yes or no.

If there is a referendum, it should be preceded by a broad education program and “spirited debate,” in Tory’s words. Hold Town Hall meetings, talk about the various choices, do it openly and with great publicity so that we can see which choices have the greatest favour. Those would be the choices that end up on the referendum ballot.

Eavesdropping on a convo about transit, on transit

I go for the bold option. We all know it’s not whether but how. The Town Hall would not have been packed, conversations would not be popping up between strangers on the streetcar, radio talk show listeners would not opine vociferously, if funding transit expansion was not in such a crisis. Hold a referendum with the most popular options on the ballot, which come out of Town Halls, public online-streamed debates, call-in shows, comments on newspaper articles, etc. People tick off their top three options. The most popular are the ones we use.

I had a Twitter conversation with TTC Chair Stintz about getting the provincial government to resume its old funding formulae. But at this stage of the game, after attending this Town Hall, even if the province did that, I realise it would not be enough. Thirty years of practically no expansion is an awfully big hole to fill. The hardest obstacle to resuming building the TTC like in the 1950s to 1970s, moving Ontarians and visitors in and out of our city, reducing our commute times and so increasing our productivity, is our politicians’ utter lack of courage and inability to see beyond fare hikes and developer levies. But given how packed the room was, the people know we need to get on with it.

The sooner we start, the better for our transit, our economy, our city life, our health.

2 comments:

Ramona said...

Good summary of an intense panel discussion!

talk talk talk / Shireen said...

Thank you Ramona! :D