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$4B transit delay leaves Miller furious, observers perplexed

‘We need to slow down the cash flow’: Wynne

By Natalie Alcoba

To call ambitious the provincial plan to “Move Ontario” with a network of rapid transit routes has always been an understatement. With tentacles stretching from Toronto into eight other municipalities, linking rich neighbourhoods with poor ones, loosening gridlock’s grip and promising to bolster economic competitiveness, the light rail initiative has trumpeted as bold, exciting, even transformative.

No surprise then that the announcement to delay $4-billion in provincial funding for a second, Toronto-heavy phase was met with white-hot rage from Mayor David Miller, who staked a large part of his political legacy on the project, and left observers perplexed: Will Queen’s Park see any of it through?

Transportation Minister Kathleen Wynne stressed yesterday that the vision is still alive. “The $11-billion is still on the table,” she said of the cost for various projects in the Toronto and Hamilton area.

Ontario announced $9-billion in funding last year for the four projects that now face delays: Eglinton Crosstown LRT, Finch LRT, Scarborough RT and York VIVA bus rapid transit.

“What we are saying is that over the next five years, we need to slow down the cash flow,” Ms. Wynne said in an interview. She did not elaborate on what that means for each project.

Mr. Miller wants Torontonians to speak up and urge the government to reconsider; others say there is a silver lining in all of this, if it prompts a serious public debate about the price of transit expansion, and how to pay for it.

“People haven’t had to confront the reality of having to pony up for the kind of infrastructure development that we really need,” said Julie Dean, executive director of the Toronto City Summit Alliance.

“Anybody looking at it closely has known that government alone cannot carry the day on it. There have to be other players involved, and I think now we’re going to have to deal with it.”

Jeff Casello, a transit expert at the University of Waterloo, says that Ontario’s and the federal government’s gas tax redistribution to municipalities is more progressive than anything similar in the United States. But there are other sources such as road tolls, congestion charges and private-public partnerships.

Prof. Casello quoted the congestion charges in Britain that make it the equivalent of about $12 to drive into the centre of London. Cities such as Stockholm, Milan and Singapore employ similar methods to fund mass transit.

Carol Wilding, president of the Toronto Board of Trade, said the city is beyond thinking about the benefits of a regional transit system: “We know what it means in terms of global competitiveness,” she said. “You’ve got to look at other options of financing.” Ms. Wilding reported there is an “openness” among the board’s membership to have this dialogue, provided “the levels of government are paying their fair share.”

But it won’t be an easy sell, especially to politicians who treat tolls like poison.

Robert Prichard, president of Metrolinx, the provincial transit agency in charge of the expansion, last year called them “radioactive” — and that they must be considered. Toronto mayoral candidate Sarah Thomson won kudos for daring to propose a $5 toll on the Gardiner and the Don Valley Parkway in order to build subways, and yesterday she suggested having people buy bonds to fund transit.

Toll proponents, however, know to gird themselves for a backlash from drivers who consider them to be a “new tax” in disguise, and argue they pay enough already.

“We’re not contemplating tolls at this point,” Ms. Wynne said. “I believe that the government should be doing this, but the federal government is not stepping up to the plate and we need them here.”

The dilemma here, argues Prof. Casello, is that North America has “underpriced” car travel for 50 years, and now it has to engineer a radical shift in thinking about what it costs to move around.

“We don’t have the revenues to maintain our physical infrastructure associated with not only our transit system, but with our auto systems as well,” he said. The somewhat overlooked decision by the province to cut its bus replacement subsidy could seriously affect the quality of the service that is there now, Mr. Casello added.

And no one is even talking about how much it is going to cost to run the expanded transit system, or who would pay for it, noted transit advocate Steve Munro.

Meanwhile, the TTC’s reputation is bruised from the public relations nightmare of a bungled St. Clair right-of-way project, and customer service discontent.

Critics lambaste it for an outdated system blamed on underfunding; passengers grumble about having to wait for three trains before cramming into one at peak hours.

“Part of the problem is that as long as people at the provincial level keep beating the drum saying TTC bad, that’s the message people get,” Mr. Munro said. “You’re not building the constituency that looks at what we can do with transit, and this is why you should pay a penny on the sales tax for it.”