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Row over GO picks up steam

THE TORONTO STAR May 25, 1998, Monday

Up Front

Row over GO picks up steam



STOP AND GO:GO Transit is under fire from Toronto politicians, who insist the city is paying too much.

Are city taxpayers footing the bill for out-of-towners?

By Peter Goodspeed
Toronto Star Feature Writer

Long-simmering tensions between the 416 area and neighbouring 905 regions are about to erupt in a political war over the funding of public transit.

Next month, Toronto planners intend to produce a report that insists city taxpayers are being gouged for $23 million a year to cover the transit costs of people who live outside the city.

Preliminary investigations by the city’s planning department show Toronto pays $38 million a year to cover travel on the Toronto Transit Commission by residents of outlying 905 regions.

At the same time, Toronto picks up nearly half GO Transit’s costs - even though GO passengers overwhelmingly come from outside Toronto.

“It’s the most ridiculous thing I have ever seen or heard in my life,” Mayor Mel Lastman fumed last week in a telephone interview with The Star from Portugal, where he was on an official visit.

“Here we are paying 100 per cent of the TTC and the 905 are paying nothing but their fare. It’s costing us over $100 million above the fare to subsidize the TTC. Yet with GO Transit, 85 per cent of the people who use it are from the 905 and beyond. Only 15 per cent are from Toronto and we are subsidizing it by 50 per cent! This does not make sense.”

“We just don’t have that kind of money and we’re not going to come up with that kind of money,” Lastman vowed.

Lastman ordered Toronto planners to review the city’s entire transit costs earlier this month after he attended his first meeting of GO Transit’s board of directors.

“I don’t want to hurt GO; I don’t want to kill GO,” Lastman said at the time, “but I want to see the money coming from the 905 (area), not from the 416.”

Last year, Queen’s Park moved to pick up most of the costs of education, taking $2.4 billion off municipal tax rolls in exchange for asking municipalities to pay nearly $3 billion for welfare, social housing, child care and public transit, previously paid for by the province.

As the province withdrew from GO Transit, it decided to pool GO’s costs among municipalities in and outside the Greater Toronto Area on the basis of each municipality’s size, its ridership patterns and GO’s service levels.

As a result, Toronto must pay 49.9 per cent of GO’s costs, followed by Peel at 15.6 per cent, York at 11.2 per cent, Durham at 10.6 per cent, Halton at 9.6 per cent and Hamilton-Wentworth at 3.1 per cent.

That move has enraged Lastman, who claims the provincial government is shirking its responsibilities in public transit and unfairly sticking Toronto with the bill.

In a precedent-setting move that has triggered deep concern among transit experts and 905 area politicians and planners, Lastman has asked Toronto’s planning department to conduct its first assessment of GO Transit’s benefits to Toronto.

Regional politicians and planners, however, are urging Lastman to proceed with extreme caution.

Tinkering with a successful public transit system could create havoc in the core economy of the GTA, they say.

“Whatever report Mayor Lastman and his people come up with comes to the table with a need to be validated,” declared Oakville Mayor Anne Mulvale. “Just because he and some of his people say those are the numbers, doesn’t mean they are in fact the numbers.”

`They are killing the goose that lays the golden eggs’

“There is a real risk that by grabbing some headlines and appearing to be standing firm for the interests of the 416, they are killing the goose that lays the golden eggs,” she added.

The single most important factor in assessing the future of GO Transit should be maintaining the underpinnings of the GTA’s economy, Mulvale said.

“Mass transit that is affordable and convenient is critical,” she said. “If you want to see an exit of head offices from Toronto into the 905, start to play around in a derogatory way with the effectiveness and cost of transportation.

“When I talk to new companies coming into my community or investigating coming in or expanding, they have made it clear they need a guaranteed, trained work force - today and tomorrow. It’s one of the critical things that keeps them in any location,” Mulvale added.

Maintaining good employment opportunities in the central downtown core is critical to the health of the entire GTA, warns University of Toronto transportation specialist Richard Soberman.

“If it isn’t easy to get downtown, in the short run people will use cars and clog up the streets even more,” he said. “But in the long run, people just might start working somewhere else.”

The problem is a fundamental one, says Gerald Stewart, of U of T’s Joint Program in Transportation.

“The taxpayers in the city of Toronto are going to look at the issue and scratch their head and say, “Look, we’ve got housing stock in Toronto, we’ve got opportunities to absorb these reasonably affluent workers. Why are we paying a subsidy to bring them in from the 905 belt?’

“And people from the 905 belt quite legitimately look at it and say: `We are making a contribution to the economy of Toronto, why should we be subsidizing people to ride into Toronto, we have jobs here in Oakville and Port Credit?’

“It’s very problematic, when there is not a central actor like the province in the game anymore. There is no easy solution. Maybe there is a little bit of truth in all sides of it.”