Archived columns and blog posts by Matt Elliott

Trudeau’s federal transit funding is a big shift — so please, Toronto, don’t screw it up

Pedestrian safety initiatives are part of the federal transit spending announced by the federal government.
Pedestrian safety initiatives are part of the federal transit spending announced by the federal government.

Municipal policy wonks in Toronto were dancing with joy last week after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced nearly $1.5 billion in funding for public transit and transportation infrastructure in Ontario.

I mean, it was a kind of subtle, barely perceptible form of dancing – policy wonks are, by nature, a reserved and nerdy bunch, unlikely to bust a move. But, trust me: there was dancing.

Trudeau’s announcement of new transit cash was exciting not just because it represents a big investment — $500 million will go to Toronto — but because it was so different from a typical transit funding announcement.

This wasn’t a flashy event with an ambitious-but-hypothetical subway map hanging in the background. This wasn’t a pledge to eventually advance some funds to support some project that won’t be built for a decade or two.

This was cold, hard federal cash attached to an itemized list of mostly small and medium projects.

Few of these projects really lend themselves to ribbon cuttings. The list includes things like track replacement and the purchase of maintenance vehicles. There’s some cash for bike sharing and support for measures that should make Toronto’s streets safer for pedestrians.

Much of it is simply for maintenance of the existing transit system – the kind of thing that could prevent issues like we’ve seen this summer with the broken air conditioning on the Bloor-Danforth subway line.

It’s the shift cities have been waiting for. Instead of swooping in to support projects when politically advantageous, there is now reason to be optimistic that the federal government is prepared to be a partner supporting transit in Canadian cities.

If there’s anything tempering my enthusiasm, it’s concern that the decision makers at city hall won’t take full advantage of the enormous opportunity this represents.

I’m worried Toronto will screw this up.

There’s two ways that could happen. The first is the obvious one. The new money could be plunged into badly-managed projects. As always, careful stewardship and accountability is critical.

The second way is more insidious. Instead of doubling down on this investment and putting more municipal cash into the maintenance, expansion and operation of the transit system, Mayor John Tory and Toronto City Council could instead opt to use the infusion of federal money to offset spending that would have otherwise had to come from municipal sources.

In other words, this federal cash could, in a roundabout way, just be used as a way to keep Toronto’s property taxes low.

For the last six years, that’s been the dominant strategy at city hall.

New revenue hasn't built or maintained infrastructure. Instead, it's built an environment where politicians can continue to claim the lowest property taxes in the GTA.

With a new federal partner, it’s time to build something else.

This post was originally published at on 2016-08-29T00:00:00.000Z

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Matt Elliott

City Hall watcher, columnist and policy wonk in Toronto.
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