Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Sic Transit Gloria Transit

It was a good three years while it lasted. From 2007, when Queen's Park announced the MoveOntario 2020 project to jump-start mass transit initiatives across the province, until last week's "delaying" of Transit City funds and the removal of funding from the Ontario Bus Replacement Program in the latest Ontario budget, the dream was alive - the dream that the government, any government, would finally give transit the shake it deserves. Those days are over now. For many people, transit has never been sexy - and I think that's a big part of the problem. While the United States tends more to cut NASA's budget when it needs to dredge up money from somewhere, in Canada governments seem to prefer to use mass transit systems as their piggy banks.

It's unfair, that's what it is. It's an inequitable and short-sighted solution that will only diminish the province's prospects in years to come. Not only do I find it regrettable that automobile ownership has, over the last seventy years, become the "ground state" of transportation in our society - that is, a car is the unspoken default - it's another example of our modern willingness to coast on the accomplishments of previous generations while building little for ourselves. Recall, if you will, that the entirety of the Toronto subway system except for Downsview station and the Sheppard line were built while everyone lived under the clear and present danger of global thermonuclear war. If leaders could justify building for the future when "the future" might mean getting vaporized by a Soviet warhead the next day, how is it that governments are unwilling to marshall the same will today?

The government is still insisting, through typically governmental doubletalk, that things are still all right - that the gutting of Transit City is only a "delay," and that bus operators around the province can use revenue from gas taxes to pay for new buses. But that's just a dodge. Come 2011, we may well have Premier Who-Dat in Queen's Park, and you can still see where the Progressive Conservatives have taken transit in Ontario before by following the trail of blood.

We can't keep living like this. Transit needs to be one of the defining issues of Toronto's municipal election, and fortunately enough it's the drum I feel most comfortable beating. Sure, financing from higher governments is welcome, but the lessons of the last twenty years demonstrate that the province and the federal government cannot be relied upon for consistent funding. The creation of a Province of Toronto would be a great help in rebalancing the equation, and although secession from Ontario is tempting given the current situation, it's also not my first choice. It's more like my second.

Surprisingly enough, the answer might come from Los Angeles. That city, that car-sprawling city, had no transit system save buses twenty years ago. Now it has more rail than Toronto subway, and more is under construction. They can afford this because of Measure R, a half-cent sales tax in force throughout Los Angeles County, the proceeds of which are funnelled to transportation projects - be they transit expansion, road rehabilitation or construction, or otherwise. The Los Angeles Times has recently written on details of LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's latest plan to fast-track transit construction - by using Measure R funds as guarantees to secure federal construction loans. It appears to be something that Washington is warming to.

From my reading of the City of Toronto Act, I can't see anything that categorically prohibits something like this - but knowing the twisted skein that law can be, it's very possible that I'm missing something in it. If it is practicable, though, all that we would need is the guaranteed revenue stream. There's one possibility in Toronto already, that would only need minor tweaking - the plastic bag tax. Right now, no matter where you are in the city of Toronto, if you want to get a plastic bag with your purchase you need to cough up an extra $0.05. It's purely symbolic environmentalism, meant mostly to discourage people from using plastic bags - but it doesn't do anything. The retailer keeps the extra five cents.

I believe that the money collected from bag taxes in Toronto should instead be used as a revenue stream for the TTC. If the tax was started up out of environmental reasons, fine - let's use it for a true environmental alternative, and not some fuzzy feel-good thing. Still, transit is an issue that affects more people than just Torontonians. We need a wide solution. I've said this before, and it bears repeating - there needs to be a Measure R of provincial scope, a revenue stream devoted purely to transportation projects.

We need to get serious about this. The glories of yore are tarnishing fast, and we can't coast forever on what's been built and made for us. We have to start finding ways of doing it anew.

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