By Ted McIntyre
How long has Leith Moore been impassioned about finding a solution to the GTA’s incessant traffic gridlock? “Ever since my trip from downtown Toronto to my office in Vaughan became as busy as for people driving in to downtown,” says the OHBA past president. “The highways are fully utilized now.”
I have always had a place downtown, and tried to locate near transit,” adds Moore. “We’ve seen the benefit of existing subways and light rail transit. So as a buyer of land and a developer of projects, I would like to see that kind of transit expanded.”
Moore, of course, is far from alone in his sentiments. Traffic congestion already costs the economy and Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA) residents an estimated $6 billion a year. Since 2003 the Ontario government has supplied almost $5.7 billion to the region to support municipal public transit and invested over $9 billion in GO Transit improvements. Still, much more is required.
Seeking options to help alleviate traffic gridlock, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne launched the Golden panel on Sept. 18. Chaired by Anne Golden, a celebrated urban thinker and past president of the Conference Board of Canada, the panel was charged with investigating transit investment strategy options beyond those released in a report by Metrolinx in May. The 13-member panel, which presented its findings to the provincial government last month, was represented on the building industry side by Moore, a former chair of the Building Industry Land Development Association (BILD), a graduate of the University of Waterloo’s School of Urban and Regional Planning and current V.P. of Development with the Sorbara Development Group.
The Metrolinx Investment Strategy model released in May 2013 recommended four methods of raising roughly $2 billion a year toward funding the $34-billion second wave of Big Move projects, including a one percentage point increase in the HST, an additional five-cents-a-litre tax on gas, as well as new commercial parking lot levies and increased development charges.
But the Golden panel suggests that all levels of government—from municipal to federal—share in the costs. The panel’s 65-page report included 20 recommendations, including a gas tax, corporate tax, as well as land value capture, a revenue tool recommended by Metrolinx that aims to collect a share of the increased property values in neighbouring developments that results from transportation investment. In contrast to the transit investment strategy released by Metrolinx in May, the panel also endorsed debt financing as a way to build some of the Big Move’s larger projects, such as a relief subway line to alleviate the crowding of the Yonge and Bloor-Danforth lines.
Specifically, the panel provides two revenue stream options. The first proposes a phased fuel tax increase commencing with 3 cents per litre and adding 1 cent per litre per year up to 10 cents per litre. Corporate income taxes would see a modest increase of 0.5% to the general rate. There would also be a redeployment of the GTHA portion of the provincial part of the HST charged on gasoline and fuel taxes. The second option proposes a 5-cent hike in gas and fuel taxes and is instead followed by a 0.5% increase to the HST. The other two revenue sources are the same.
The impact on an average GTHA household from an increase in gasoline tax would be about $80 in year one, and $260 per household after eight years. By comparison, sitting in traffic for an additional 32 minutes every day—which has been predicted without transit expansion—could cost a driver over $700 a year.
The report also recommends investment in local transit improvements to help patch up the existing network. Initially, the phased-in approach would raise between $1.7 billion and $1.8 billion—less than the $2 billion annually that Metrolinx’s 11-pronged approach entailed—but funding would increase over time. Siding with Metrolinx, the Golden panel wants those funds to be protected in a dedicated trust to prevent government from allocating its transit funding for other projects.
Although the Ontario PCs want government to shave its spending to foot the bill, and the NDP has cited corporate taxes as a key revenue source, Golden does not believe those are feasible means of funding the plan. A more significant tool, the panel notes, will be to integrate the private sector early in the process.
“Laying more tax on people won’t solve the problem,” contends Moore. “But if you identify an area where you want to go, and you identify the beneficiaries in advance and try to negotiate a land-value capture, a sharing of the benefits that will come with some certainty—you’ll get a lot more buy-in.
“What people keep missing in this is jobs—making employment work,” Moore says. “Transit that is successful links to employment centres, and I think it’s one of the things that might be lacking in some of the previous analyses. The airports and business sectors where there are not currently subways—that’s where we’ve got to go.”
Such a strategy would involve striking relationships with employers in those areas to encourage them to participate in a new system that facilitates getting their employees to their jobs, Moore explains. “Congestion will only be relieved if transit addresses the concept of getting people to where they work.”
Moore has been only too happy to contribute to a possible solution to Ontario’s greatest infrastructural challenge. “I’m kind of tired of going to other great cities that have made it work like Paris, Copenhagen and Amsterdam, even Denver with its light rail—and then coming back to Toronto and hearing the endless debate about subways and light rail—people debating and not building. New York City has a good model of negotiating land-value capture upfront, and there’s the new Crossrail system being built in London, England, that has a fabulous model of private sector partnering with government.”
The Golden panel wasn’t exactly embraced by the political opposition. Conservative leader Tim Hudak went so far as to call it “some new panel to study studies of studies,” and Newmarket-Aurora MPP and PC transportation critic Frank Klees called it a stalling tactic by the Premier’s office. Golden sees it differently.
“Some people are cynical. The good news is that the panel was not,” says Golden. “We asked, ‘What are we trying to do?’ The answer was that we were trying to get it right. We wanted to have a total integrity, and to build constructively on what has been done by Metrolinx, the Ontario Chamber of Commerce and Toronto Board of Trade. I don’t know this, but I’m assuming (the provincial Liberal government) may not have been entirely comfortable with what was proposed by Metrolinx. They felt they had the time, because they weren’t going to bring in anything before the spring budget anyway. They also hoped that our report might be able to help move the yardstick on the public’s willingness to pay. The government is very aware that the mood today is not in favour of extra taxes and that there’s a lot of mistrust because of antics at all levels.”
Golden says the panel was aware that the minority Liberal government situation makes it difficult to push through the new proposals, but she hopes the rationale behind their report will sufficiently explain the need to invest on all fronts—“that we are at the tipping point in terms of congestion on our roads and overcrowding on our transit. I think (the Opposition) will see the value in the report, because we have come up with a new plan. And we know it works because we’ve modelled it. I think it will be seen as very palatable.”
There is certainly a commitment from the province to nail down a master plan of some form. On Nov. 26, Minister of Infrastructure and Transportation Glen Murray announced a proposal to strengthen long-term infrastructure planning in Ontario. If passed, the Infrastructure for Jobs and Prosperity Act would require the government to table a plan that specifically outlines what infrastructure will be built over the next 10 years. All planning would take demographic and economic trends into account. The province, which has pledged to spend $35 billion on infrastructure over the next three years—it is currently building three light-rail lines and adding an extension to both Highway 407 and the Toronto subway—would be required to table its first building plan within three years, then update it every five years.
Moore, as with the rest of the Golden panel, hopes their suggestions will be incorporated into those plans. A green light of any kind in these congested times, after all, would be a welcome sight.