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Cities seek transit cash

Mayors to ask Ottawa today for long-term funding to get people out of cars and onto buses, subways and streetcars

Mar 05, 2007 04:30 AM
Bruce Campion-Smith

OTTAWA–Canada’s big city mayors today will call on Ottawa to commit hundreds of millions of dollars in annual funding to upgrade and expand the country’s transit systems.

And they’re hoping that the federal Conservatives – looking to make progress on the environment front – will write a cheque to support this new municipal strategy to get people out of their cars and onto subways, buses and streetcars.

“A national transit strategy is essential for the competitiveness, social equity and environmental sustainability of Canada’s largest cities,” said Toronto Mayor David Miller, who will join with Montreal Mayor Gérald Tremblay today to announce details of the strategy.

“It’s fair to say we’ll call for significant investment in Canada’s cities,” Miller said by telephone late yesterday as he travelled by train to Montreal for the morning announcement.

The plan prepared by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities and its Big City Mayors caucus has been months in the making.

Officials were tight-lipped about its contents. But they promised it would be a comprehensive game plan that would urge not just more funding but other government measures to boost transit use.

And they are optimistic that the demands for investment will be welcomed by a Conservative government looking for solutions that help meet its environmental goals.

“The government has made cleaner air and (greenhouse gases) one of its policy priorities,” one municipal source said.

“If we’re going to see a coherent strategy on (greenhouse gases) and smog, transit has got to be part of that equation,” the source added.

Today’s transit strategy comes during a week when Prime Minister Stephen Harper is expected to join with Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty to promise $1 billion in federal funding to improve transportation throughout the GTA. That includes close to $700 million in federal funding for the estimated $2 billion extension of the subway to York University and Vaughan as well as other investments to improve bus services throughout the 905 region.

Yet while “one-off” investments are appreciated, the municipal politicians will stress a recurring theme today – the demand for long-term sustainable funding.

“If you go with the ad hoc short-term investments, you can’t have long-term planning at the city level, you can’t have good land use planning,” said one municipal official involved in preparing the strategy.

In making the case for more federal dollars, municipal officials note that transit riders in Canada pay a bigger share of the costs of building and operating municipal systems than transit riders in most Western countries.

“Canada is the only G-8 country without a national transportation program,” read a Federation of Canadian Municipalities submission presented to federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty last month.

“This is affecting our global competitiveness, our quality of life and the nation’s ability to meet clear air and climate change objectives,” it read.

It noted that the Canadian Urban Transit Association estimates that through to 2010, transit systems will require $20.7 billion in capital investments.

Miller is confident the mayors have Flaherty’s ear. As the MP who represents the riding of Whitby-Oshawa, the finance minister not only sees firsthand the transportation pressures facing the Greater Toronto Area, he has also been known to ride GO Transit, Miller said.

But Miller thinks he can persuade Flaherty on another front – that the region’s crowded roads and highways are clogging the economy.

“The Toronto Board of Trade has identified transportation and gridlock as their Number 1 issue … It’s an essential investment from Bay Street’s perspective,” he said.

“I think Minister Flaherty understands the necessity for transit infrastructure (and) a federal role,” he said.

Municipal officials, including Miller, met with Flaherty last month to drive home the need for long-term funding.

But there’s no doubt that the price tag for municipal demands is rising.

In addition to today’s transit strategy, mayors also want the annual $2 billion in gas-tax funding – now promised only to 2012 – made permanent as the “centrepiece” of a federal commitment strategy to tackle the infrastructure woes.

And big-city mayors have also endorsed the idea of getting one cent of the federal goods and services tax, which would provide cities with roughly $5 billion a year for infrastructure repairs.

Altogether, the demands ring in at more than $7 billion a year. But Miller argues the investments, while costly, are essential and will pay off.

“Two-thirds of the net new jobs are created in Canada’s 10 largest cities and if we want the economy to succeed we need to support that job growth,” Miller said.

“If the federal government doesn’t invest in cities, it’s going to hurt its own revenue-raising ability because those funds are dependent on a strong economy,” he said.

“The more investment in cities, the better off they are,” he said.

That’s why municipal leaders are optimistic that Flaherty’s budget in two weeks will have a “significant component” for transit.

For his part, Flaherty himself called last month’s discussions with Miller and others “constructive.”

“I think what I heard from the mayors was that they want to have a federal government that understands the needs of communities and cities in Canada and we do,” Flaherty said after the meeting.

“We talked very practically about the demands that they face in terms of public transit, infrastructure demands,” he said.