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Friday Wrap: Subways Subways Subways & Tolls Tolls Tolls

To end the week, a look at the major stories that have been swirling around Toronto City Hall.

Now that Transit City is a confirmed piece of Toronto's transit future, it's time for council to turn their attention back to subway construction. Or, in Rob Ford parlance, it's time to talk subways subways subways.

Two heavy rail projects are in the news this week. First, there's the regrettably-named Downtown Relief Line, long considered this city's transit saviour. It's supported by virtually anyone who knows anything about transit. The other project up for consideration is the creatively-named North York Relief Line, a proposed westerly extension of the Sheppard Subway.

The Sheppard proposal is being carried virtually single-handedly by Councillor James Pasternak, whose North York ward would likely play host to any new stops added as the subway route is extended to connect to the Spadina line. Pasternak is a sincere guy who has shown an admirable independent streak in recent months, but he's not done a great job of explaining why exactly this pet subway project deserves immediate attention. He needs to put some ridership numbers behind his scheme if he really wants to sell this as a good use of a billion dollars.

The Downtown Relief Line, on the other hand, is vitally important. Despite the name, this new subway line wouldn't be a boon for downtown elites as much as it would drastically improve service for North York and Scarborough residents who today face forced transfers to packed-to-the-gills Yonge trains in order to get downtown.

So: who loves road tolls?

Broaching the subject has long been seen as political suicide, but some members of council are taking bold, brave steps toward these revenue tools. Take it as a sign that maybe Toronto is ready to set aside gravy train slogans and have an adult conversation about its budget.

Still, despite the optimism, some of the recent proposals surrounding road pricing are premature and toothless. Councillor Josh Matlow, who says he'll soon push the toll debate forward with a motion at council, has in the past suggested exempting Toronto residents from any new tolls, putting the financial burden on 905 residents who, admittedly, make extensive use of City-maintained infrastructure without paying local taxes.

But a 905-only road toll scheme doesn't make a lot of sense. It limits revenue potential and neuters the positive behavioural impacts of road pricing. All by themselves, tolls on major thoroughfares can, like magic, reduce congestion – a boon for everyone including those behind the wheel – but that effect is greatly limited if a large percentage of road users aren't paying.

Road tolls need to play a role in any discussion about the GTA's transportation future, but in the near-term a sales tax or similar across-the-board revenue tool seem like better bets, especially if the goal is to raise revenues large enough to fund major transit expansion.

Not only would something like a municipal sales tax be a more consistent revenue driver, there's also indication that it might actually find some popular support – something that can't be said for road tolls right now.

Use new revenue tools to get started on a robust transit system that gives people a realistic alternative to their cars and then – and only then – do road tolls become workable.

They read the news (while driving the streetcar) today, oh boy

Imagine if frequent short-turns, vehicle bunching, thirty minute delays and other chronic TTC service issues got the same kind of front page treatment the Toronto media gives the latest gotcha photograph of a TTC employee reading the newspaper, sleeping or texting?

This isn't to say that the rare cases in which a TTC driver does something stupid should be ignored, but perspective is important. Every large employer has issues with employees sometimes doing dumb things they shouldn't do. It's important that such issues are identifiable and deal with quickly. But that's about as far as these stories should go.

Spoiler alert: this council will not vote to lower speed limits in Toronto.

This post was originally published at on 2012-04-27T00:00:00.000Z

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Matt Elliott

City Hall watcher, columnist and policy wonk in Toronto.
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