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Peace at hand in GO standoff

Commuter Corner
Joseph Hall

Today, the Greater Toronto Services Board will almost certainly vote the city of Toronto a new funding deal on GO Transit expansion.

The board is expected to rubber-stamp a report, prepared by treasurers from Toronto and the surrounding regions, recommending that the city’s portion of a $980 million GO system expansion be significantly less than was originally expected.

This is surprising, given the nastiness that erupted between Toronto Mayor Mel Lastman and his counterparts in the 905 area around the city when GO’s original funding formula was imposed on the municipalities by a downloading Queen’s Park last year.

What’s more surprising is that the fractious services board could agree on something of this significance.

“This is a good-news story,” says the board’s departing chair, Alan Tonks.

“Over the past year I believe there’s been a realization of the importance of transit and a coming together of the city and 905 in a searching for the common good.”

When the provincial Tories created the GTSB in late 1998 they touted it as a way to oversee all of Greater Toronto’s shared infrastructure. In fact, the only real authority it got was to run GO, and even then, Queen’s Park set the funding formula.

Toronto, the Tory government said, would pay 49.9 per cent of the system’s maintenance and operating costs - some $826 million over the next 10 years.

A spitting-mad Lastman said GO was used far more by people in 905 than in his city. The 905 municipalities replied that GO sends their residents to fill Toronto’s office towers, hugely enriching the city’s tax base.

What’s more, the suburbanites said, if the GO formula was on the table, then so was the one governing social service funding, which had the 905 municipalities feeding about $150 million a year into Toronto’s welfare coffers.

Stalemate ensued, but when the municipal treasurers and GTSB staff sat down to figure out who would pay for GO expansion, a deal was struck.

With the vast majority of GO’s service expansion expected to locate in the 905, and with those regions expecting the biggest increases in assessment base, the treasurers lowered Toronto’s share to 43.7 per cent. With GO looking to spend almost $1 billion over the next decade on expansion, Toronto stands to save tens of millions.

This formula, reviewable after five years, would also fluctuate along with the changing assessment bases. Should the 905 regions indeed grow faster than Toronto, then presumably their share of GO’s expansion would increase proportionately.

That this kind of rational and fair agreement could be reached is encouraging. What’s more encouraging still is that 905 leaders are beginning to tie development and transportation together.

“The regional municipalities have laid notice on the development industry that they intend to pay for improved transit service though development charges,” Tonks says.

And he says the report’s timing is meant to give 905 municipalities ammunition against builders in the near-certain battle that will erupt over development fees.

“We have to have an agreement in place that will show precisely what each region will have to pay in terms of their commitment to GO expansion,” Tonks says.

Development fees tied to transportation are long overdue. For decades, 905 developers, with grovelling municipal consent, have increased pressures on GO without paying to expand it.

In turn, suburbanites have been able to buy houses at prices that in no way reflect their cost to society. And these artificially low prices are the main attraction of inefficient, low-density sprawl living.