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Transit plan jammed with ideas but sorely lacking a traffic cop

Road tolls, sales tax, car tax, parking levy. Yada, yada, yada. The autumn air is full of talk about new "revenue tools" to pay for better transit, but with the mayor dead-set against and the Premier in minority position, it is all just so much chatter.

Rob Ford made his views more than clear in an interview on CBC Radio's Metro Morning Wednesday. Asked by host Matt Galloway which taxes or levies he would support to pay for transit, he said: "I don't support any of them right now. I'm not a tax-and-spend kind of politician."

He didn't seem to know about the release of a report by his own city staff setting out a list of 10 options, from a 10-cent-a-kilometre highway tax to a 1-per-cent sales tax. It was "premature" even to talk about revenue tools, he said, when a staff report was coming "either next month or the month after." In fact, the report was released on Monday and covered in the press. It will be presented on Tuesday to the city's executive committee, which the mayor chairs when he isn't coaching football.

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The report is a worthy effort as far as it goes. Like a dozen reports before, it points out that Greater Toronto is drowning in congestion. It notes that the provincial transit agency, Metrolinx, has a $50-billion plan, the Big Move, to build subway, light-rail and bus lines, but that plenty of other grand transit visions in the past were shelved or scaled back for lack of money. With the provincial government struggling to cut its budget deficit, "the Big Move projects could face a similar fate unless new dedicated taxes and fees are implemented to pay for them." Through "a modest application" of a few of these revenue tools, Metrolinx could raise the needed funds and "any negative impacts would be more that offset by the benefits from the additional transportation investment."

Well said. But who, in these times, is willing to put words into action? How likely is it that with the mayor opposed and a municipal election year approaching in 2014, the city would do something as bold as impose a tax to fund transit?

Even if it did, many of the taxes it might choose would have to be approved by Queen's Park. With Dalton McGuinty's Liberal government hanging by a thread, and Tim Hudak's Conservative opposition calling him a tax-happy pickpocket, how likely is it that he would do something as risky as slapping voters with a new tax, however justified?

Mr. McGuinty has punted the whole issue to Metrolinx, which is due to release a report on revenue tools for its Big Move by next June. Even after that, Transportation Minister Bob Chiarelli told reporters on Wednesday, "there then will be a period of time for public dialogue on how to – or whether we should – implement those, or how we should deal with them." In "every kitchen and every living room and every Tim Hortons shop across the GTA chain, we need to have a public discussion."

No, what we need is some leadership. It's all very well to commission reports listing ways to raise money for transit. Anyone with a search engine can find out that Los Angeles has imposed a half-cent sales tax to pay for highways and transit or that Vancouver has a transit-dedicated fuel tax. KPMG consultants made a list for Gordon Chong's report on Sheppard Avenue transit. Now city staff have made another.

It is fine to ask for public input, too. The city report calls for a consultation process to gather feedback on its 10 options, with the results to go to city council next spring. So now we have two reports and two consultations, one by the city and one by Metrolinx.

But in the end, says the city report, "taxpayers need to be convinced that the [transit] investments are worthwhile. A concerted effort from business, community and government leaders is required to put the arguments on the table."

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In other words, somebody has to lead. Instead, we get more yada yada yada.

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About the Author
Toronto columnist

Marcus Gee is Toronto columnist for the Globe and Mail, Canada's national newspaper.Born in Toronto, he graduated from the University of British Columbia in 1979 with a degree in modern European history, then worked as a reporter for The Province, Vancouver's morning newspaper. More

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