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Carving out transit future will take steely nerves

Jun 19, 2008 04:30 AM
Royson James

Promising $11.5 billion of transportation funding over 12 years, the provincial government took a bold step toward launching a brave new transit future for the Toronto region with its MoveOntario 2020 announcement.

The province, in essence, took the many projects on the books of municipal transit systems and said, “Let’s do it.”

“It’s the most significant promise to take place in memory,” says the man expected to lead us to the transit future. But Rob MacIsaac, chair of Metrolinx, adds: “It’s clearly not enough.”

The region, spreading from Hamilton to Clarington, actually needs investment of between $60 billion and $95 billion over the next 25 years. MacIsaac says. Cities and towns are already cash-strapped so can’t be expected to tap property taxes to fill the gap which, depending on the capital projects, maintenance and operating costs, could hit anywhere from $6.5 billion to $9 billion a year.

“The concepts we are testing are significantly higher than MoveOntario 2020,” says MacIsaac. “That was the turning point. We see it as the start and a foundation rather than an end.”

In essence, Metrolinx, the provincial agency set up to coordinate and plan transportation needs for the region, has a vision to improve transit so significantly that 80 per cent of people live within two kilometres of a rapid transit line.

Only the City of Toronto approaches that kind of transit coverage. For the rest of the Greater Toronto and Hamilton area, 30 per cent of the population living within the two-kilometre radius is the norm.

Getting there will a tremendous cash outlay. And few are expecting the province to cough up extra billions on top of its promises.

That explains why Metrolinx is putting the final touches on an investment funding strategy to be released July 25. After three months of public consultation, the plan is to go to Queen’s Park for approval in October.

There are certain premises underpinning this effort: Commuters want to spend less time on the road and more with their families; there’s a growing concern about greenhouse gases and recognition that transit is a better option than the private automobile; and traffic congestion is a negative factor in the race to remain or become a competitive economic region.

“We are on a burning platform,” says MacIsaac. “People are suffering in a variety of ways in trying to get around the region. They suffer congestion, there are not sufficient alternatives and when there is, it tends to be miserable as commuters are crammed onto the streetcar or bus. It’s not a good experience.”

So far, the politicians who comprise Metrolinx board have been resolute in their determination to carve out a transit future for the region. But will they hold firm when the public outrage rains down in response to unpalatable funding options?

The torrent of email slamming the idea of road tolls as a viable funding strategy for transit improvements suggests that our politicians will need thick skins and steely nerves if they are to adopt the painful funding measures to deliver the massive transit plan being contemplated.

“Not without a fight,” “Go to China, you commie,” “We can’t pay any more” are just some of the scores of responses to Monday’s column, which said residents should brace for the tolls.

Such vitriol will surely rattle cages at Queen’s Park.

But MacIsaac says after decades of flinching and equivocating: “There is a sense that this is our last best chance to make this work for the city region. We can’t afford not to act.”