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Funding transit is good business - and good sense

Commuter Corner
Joseph Hall

Whatever argument the Ontario government is using to justify its continued refusal to fund transit in Ontario, one thing is sure.

It isn’t based on common sense. Indeed, it might well be a blueprint for disaster.

A report to be presented today by the Canadian Urban Transit Association argues that transit investments pay off at the rate of nine to one for every dollar spent to build or expand commuter systems.

Not building them, on the other hand, encourages sprawling low-density developments that boost road costs by 25 per cent and utility and land costs by 20 per cent.

The association report, to be tabled at Pollution Probe’s Greater Toronto Area Transit Summit, cites U.S. studies showing the huge community benefits of expanding bus or rail systems.

These benefits aren’t just derived from the environmental and quality-of-life enhancements craved by your typical left-leaning tree hugger. They roll out in the dollars-and-cents numbers so dear to this provincial government’s profit-motive mindset.

One recent U.S. study, for example, showed that every $10 million invested in transit created 314 jobs, boosted business sales by $30 million and saved $15 million in road costs.

Building transit allows efficient densities to grow

Because transit can facilitate compact urban development, communities save productivity that would be wasted in the congestion and increased infrastructure costs of sprawling suburbia.

The connection between productivity and density is now being recognized by U.S. bankers, who are allowing people moving into neigh- bourhoods deemed “location-efficient” to qualify for higher mortgages than their suburban counterparts.

The denser the neighbourhood, the more essential transit becomes. As an area’s density increases, the ability of its road system to move people and goods around decreases proportionately.

Thus, building transit allows efficient densities to grow and reduces the impulse to build ever farther out.

The report says health-care costs related to automobile travel and the long-term health effects of air pollution reach $5 billion a year in Ontario.

In the parlance of the day, then, transit would appear to be a blue-chip investment.

The trouble is, municipalities on their own simply cannot afford to play this market - and nowhere else in the G7 group of industrialized nations are they expected to. Investment in transit by state or federal governments in the G7 range from 67 per cent of capital costs in the United States to between 30 per cent and 100 per cent of capital costs in Europe.

In Canada, there is no federal transit involvement and provincial spending accounts for only 5 per cent of operating and capital needs. Ontario’s provincial commitment to transit is zero.

More and more, the U.S. federal government is realizing that transit is one of the most effective ways to lower air pollution on the way to meeting provisions of its own Clean Air Act and its commitment to the Kyoto agreement on greenhouse emissions.

If it’s due to anything more than an anti-urban bias, the refusal by Queen’s Park to fund city bus and rail systems might be explained by the Harris Tories’ simple stinginess: A trade of transit for tax cuts.

Even this thinking is flawed. With its continued support of a truncated provincial highway system, Queen’s Park is still backing the more expensive transportation option.

Contrary to popular belief, motorists in big cities receive a larger government subsidy than transit users.

The association paper cites studies showing that Ontario transit users fund about 75 per cent of their trip costs through the fare box.

With the price of road upkeep and enforcement, motorists typically pay only 60 per cent of the real costs of automobile travel.

Readers can contact Joseph Hall by phone at (416) 869-4390 or e-mail at