Toronto is one of those cities that would grind to a halt without its public transportation system. The provincial government knows this; recall 2008, when the Toronto Transit Commission strike was settled by back-to-work legislation was pushed through in the space of a weekend, while only a matter of months later Ottawa's OC Transpo strike was allowed to drag on for fifty-one days before that city and its union reached a deal. Recall last week, when a subway shutdown saw so many commuters spill onto the sidewalks at Yonge and Bloor that the police had to be brought in for crowd control.
Transit is of extreme importance to this city. Everyone, including the people who do not set foot on the TTC, should recognize that. Many roads are strained already - the grid would not be able to absorb the million-plus people that ride the system every day. That's why I find it so frustrating that the TTC has to perform a desperate balancing act just to maintain itself, like riding a unicycle on top of a jagged boulder rolling steadily downhill. For most of the last twenty years the TTC has lurched from crisis to crisis, at times barely keeping things together. If Toronto is serious about establishing its bona fides as a city worth reckoning with, there's still a lot of work to be done.
One potential solution comes from Los Angeles. Transit in Los Angeles County was provided purely by buses for almost thirty years, following the total destruction of the original Los Angeles streetcar system, and that city is known for the magnitude of its traffic jams. Maybe that's exactly why Los Angelenos are willing to give transit a chance today - they know what the alternative is.
In November 2008, Los Angeles voters passed Measure R, a half-cent sales tax levied throughout Los Angeles County to finance transportation improvement throughout that jurisdiction's eighty-eight cities, towns, and unincorporated areas. In some places the money - they're expecting to generate $40 billion by 2039 - will be invested in road improvements, but in terms of public transportation, Measure R has provided the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority with a guaranteed income stream to finance service expansions. LACMTA's not sitting on its hands, either; the Expo light-rail line is on target for a first-phase completion in 2011, the Gold Line is on track for another round of expansion, and in the more long-term plan, the subway's Purple Line is to be extended west to the Pacific Ocean, bringing higher-order transit service to areas that lack it. Combined with the lavish governmental support LACMTA receives, the future for transit in Los Angeles looks bright.
Toronto could take lessons from this. Hell, all of Ontario could have. The biggest problem Toronto has is that the provincial and federal governments care nothing about the TTC except when it can be used as a job generator to make them look better. Thus, witness the federal support of the Sheppard East LRT, a white elephant that will only ensure that the Sheppard Line remains a stub unable to realize its potential, and provincial willingness to invest in big-ticket construction projects while refusing to provide a share of the money that will be needed to actually run and maintain those projects once they become part of the system.
Something like a municipal transportation tax could improve matters here, whether it's Toronto-only or province-wide. The latter might be the more palatable option, as it would enable the expansion of systems elsewhere and would eliminate the phenomenon of people hopping north of Steeles to buy their staples. A dedicated half-cent could do a lot to improve the stability of transit and transportation in this province.
Whatever the way it's done, that's what Toronto really needs - stability. A strong foundation. Without that, the TTC will continue to stumble from crisis to crisis, and a system that's devoting all of its time to keeping its head above water misses out on opportunities to innovate, to improve, and to really be the better way.