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Let's stop gawking at Rob Ford for a second and read this Metrolinx report

By: Matt Elliott Metro, Metro Published on Fri May 31 2013

Stop looking at that pile of fiery wreckage sinking into the cold black water for a second. Instead, look at this Metrolinx report. It's important.

Metrolinx, the transit agency for the Greater Toronto Area and Hamilton, has been working on its investment strategy for more than five years, and was required by legislation to make recommendations on how to fund the next phase of major transit projects this month. So it's an incredibly important document, representing our best shot at actually effectively fighting congestion across the region within the next few decades. In that light, it's all kinds of unfortunate that it's been pretty well sidelined by the Rob Ford show.

Anyway, it's a very good report. Going in, we pretty much knew what the top-line recommendations were going to be. It was a given that, after all the hype, the agency would recommend funding much-needed transit expansion with a dedicated sales tax, a business parking levy, a gas tax and increased development charges. So none of that was terribly exciting. But what really impressed me is the way the report preempts potential arguments against its proposals.

For example, to those who would claim that we can't trust the government — or maybe just this government — with new revenues, the report outlines a lockbox strategy to ensure any revenue raised won't bleed off into an abyss of general revenues. Instead, all money raised would go direct to a Transportation Trust Fund.

“The fund would be governed by a board of trustees which would release funds only upon the receipt of documentation certifying the disbursement is related to one or more of the [Big Move] Next Wave projects or programs,” it says, also noting — critically — that “the trust would be irrevocable.”

Metrolinx also talks extensively about the need for a good communications strategy, assuring us that “annual performance reviews of the Next Wave projects across the GTHA should be carried out on a project-by-project basis.” Good.

And for those who wonder why new taxes and fees are necessary at all, when there are possible alternatives, the report's got gifts for you too. Metrolinx has a whole section on land value capture and leveraging publicly-owned spaces near future transit stations, for those who believe there's untapped sources of cash to come from building atop subway stops.

Even the Doug Ford School of Yelling About How The Private Sector Can Build Stuff gets a mention: Metrolinx recommends that any Big Move project set to cost more than $50 million be evaluated for delivery through what they call “Alternative Financing and Procurement” — a fancy term for transferring some of the cost to private companies. It's how they built the Canada Line in Vancouver.

There's good stuff in here for us downtown elites, as well, including a direction to push five per cent of new revenues toward so-called “multimodal and alternative transportation projects.” Which I'm going to choose to read as “mostly bike stuff.” And I like bike stuff.

I still have some concerns about the regressive nature of these taxes, but the Mobility Tax Credit the agency recommends to offset the sales tax paid by low-income earners sure helps. So too does a report by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, which concludes “transit benefit is so strongly progressive that expanded transit funded from modestly regressive taxes is, overall, progressive.”

My only real complaint reading through the report is that the question of how to pay for operating expenses isn't fully answered. The agency makes reference to new revenues covering the “Metrolinx share of operating and maintenance costs” but there's precious little detail about what that entails.

Given the scope of the Big Move, we're looking at dozens of new or improved transit lines that will each require some manner of annual operational subsidy. I'm hoping the assumption is not that the bulk of those subsidies will come from municipalities via the property tax base. A more comprehensive strategy is needed, preferably one that sees the provincial government finally get back into the business of funding transit operating costs via general revenues.

As good as this Metrolinx report is, there's still the matter of all the politics. Already we're seeing some backpedalling from politicians who fear they can't win re-election if they're on the record supporting new taxes. And, sure, tax proposals are unpopular. But no one has presented an alternative plan that will get shovels in the ground within the next few years. We don't have a ton of options. Either we embrace the strategy laid out in this report or we kick it to the curb in favour of arguing some more.

And I'd suggest that we don't have time for more arguing. The report is clear up front: congestion is costing us billions. Metrolinx is recommending the average household pay an annual total of $477 in new taxes and fees to address a problem that costs them at least $1,619 per year. In business, they'd call that a good investment. They might even call it a win.

This post was originally published at http://www.metronews.ca/views/toronto/ford-for-toronto-matt-elliott/2013/05/31/lets-stop-gawking-at-rob-ford-for-a-second-and-read-this-metrolinx-report.html on 2013-05-31T00:00:00.000Z

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