– A ‘world-class’ transit system in Toronto?

Toronto Star

Royson James

The TTC plans to spend up to $30 billion through the next decade, fixing up, remaking and expanding the largest transit system in Canada.

The city cannot afford it. A staff report in September shows the TTC starts running out of approved funds in 2011. By 2012, the basic maintenance budget will be short $312 million. Over the 10 years, the total base shortfall is $1.3 billion. And when you add unfunded projects, the shortfall hits a whopping $13 billion.

So, have you heard a serious discussion on how you might help pay for what is an essential, indispensable service?

And if a mayoral candidate were to suggest you pay a few dollars and cents in tolls, with proceeds going toward your transportation future, would it sit well with you?

Didn’t think so. Torontonians muddle along, expecting a “world-class” transit system while paying chicken feed to use it.

Meanwhile, the city’s water department unveiled its 2010 budget Monday. It asks for $720 million to treat our water, deliver it, fix and upgrade water mains and expand the system next year. For the next 10 years, Toronto’s water department will spend more than $8 billion.

The amazing feature of this huge building and maintenance program that will correct some perennial problems with our water system is that it will be accomplished with annual water rate increases of about 9 per cent – and nary a sound of protest from citizens.

Imagine the outcry if the mayor advocated a 9 per cent property tax increase to pay for police, fire, ambulance, transit and parks and the like.

The water rate charge is a user fee – you pay for what you use – and it has increasingly found favour with governments and citizens. For the government, it is a way of increasing taxes without being blamed for increasing traditional taxes.

That explains why Toronto moved garbage costs off the property tax bill and onto the water bill. As garbage costs rise, city council can raise fees while claiming taxes are low. Now, if it is that easy for waste and water, why not implement a user-pay system for transit or for roads? Both ideas are fraught with political danger.

Council’s progressives will offer well-considered arguments on why transit fares are already too high and how they disproportionately hit the poor and those who have no other option but the bus. Those very councillors complain that road users don’t pay the full costs of driving around.

Councillors on the other side say transit fares are a bargain and should be hiked. And they say auto owners pay a lot of gas and tire taxes and other levies.

And as they talk quietly among themselves, traffic woes continue to pile higher.

Toronto desperately needs a regionwide discussion on how to pay for its transportation future – a discussion that goes beyond expecting the federal and provincial government to pay for it all.

Know this:

Advocacy dating back a decade has resulted in federal and provincial funding, backed by smaller amounts from the city, along with approvals for $8.15 billion in Transit City streetcar projects and $2.6 billion for the Spadina subway expansion into York Region.

Still, $5.9 billion worth of Transit City projects remain unfunded. There is no money promised or in place for the $3.8 billion Yonge subway expansion. And nothing for $2.4 billion in waterfront projects and transit initiatives. Plus, there is $1.3 billion missing for basic maintenance.

That’s $13 billion no one is talking about.

And we haven’t even touched the $1.3 billion annual cost of running the system.

Royson James usually appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

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