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TTC no longer model for U.S., conference told

American cities’ transit ‘renaissance’ eclipsing cash-strapped Toronto system

Thursday, June 14, 2001

Toronto once was the envy of U.S. cities for investments in public transit, but that’s no longer true now that the United States is putting billions of dollars a year into subways, buses and light rail service, a conference was told yesterday.

“We in the U.S. used to look north for some of the best ideas in transportation,” William Millar, president of the American Public Transportation Association, told a one-day session on gridlock and urban sprawl sponsored by the Canadian Urban Institute, a non-profit urban think tank.

“At one point it looked like Toronto had the best transit system in North America. I wish I could tell you that is true today. That is not.”

Mr. Millar made his comments as Toronto region politicians and transit officials try to wring funds from the federal government — which puts no money into transit but has promised an urban agenda — and the provincial government — which withdrew four years ago from subsidizing the day-to-day operations and capital costs of transit.

In contrast to Canada, Mr. Millar said, “we have seen a real renaissance in funding all forms of transportation in the U.S., particularly in public transit, at the federal, state and local level.”

This year, he noted, the U.S. federal government will spend $6.3-billion on transit equipment and other infrastructure — two-thirds of it paid for through three cents of an 18-cent federal gas tax.

“Make no mistake, it takes money to make these things function. They do not run on their own and it is essential that good, large and consistent amounts of investment be made if you want to make a difference,” he told the audience of planners, politicians and business people.

He said the lesson from the United States, which revived its support for transit only in the 1990s, is to use a dedicated tax to pay big-ticket costs. As well, he said, pro-transit groups must define the issue so the benefits of mass movement of people and goods on roads and transit are shared by all citizens.

“It’s good business,” he said, estimating that every $10-million invested in capital projects for transit generates more than 300 jobs, a $30-million gain in private business sales and $15-million in savings from reduced traffic congestion.

GO Transit general manager Gary McNeil said later that Mr. Millar “hit it right on” in describing the reversal of fortunes on either side of the border.

“We have enough solutions, but there is no one saying here is the money,” he said.

Yesterday, Ontario Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Chris Hodgson told the conference that “better co-ordination from all levels of government” is needed. But he made no commitment on funds beyond the $250-million for transit projects outside Toronto promised in the recent Ontario budget.

He added that the government may not decide until fall on a possible new agency to oversee capital spending on transportation for the Toronto region. That’s when the government expects to announce details of its “smart growth” policy to combat urban sprawl.