Picture this: a brand new subway line extending from Don Mills and Eglinton through to downtown; the rickety Scarborough RT replaced with a reliable—and fast—extension of the Bloor-Danforth line; waterfront light rail lines running from Etobicoke to the Don River; two convenient rapid transit connections to Pearson Airport, both with local service.
Now bundle that all up with a grab bag of other infrastructure—a Yonge extension north; a Sheppard extension west; several more light rail lines and bus routes—and, hey, Toronto suddenly starts to look like a city with a respectable rapid transit map. A city that can finally move.
That’s the new vision today from TTC Chair Karen Stintz and Vice Chair Glenn De Baeremaeker. Dubbed the OneCity Transit Plan, the surprise proposal is groundbreaking for a lot of reasons.
The Ford-less Factor
This proposal stands as the first real sign of strength from the new TTC board following a March council vote that saw Ford-supporting commissioners kicked to the curb. By all accounts, Rob Ford had nothing to do with this plan, and early indictions are that he’ll oppose it out-of-hand. His allies have already opened that door: Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti called the plan a “war on the suburbs” while Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong said it amounted to a “massive tax attack.”
But the mayor—and his few remaining diehard supporters on council—are almost completely irrelevant at this point, especially when it comes to transit. Opposing an ambitious transit vision, one that includes subways and is likely to see overwhelming support at council, serves only to cement Ford’s status as an outsider. It’ll also demonstrate that council is capable of proactive city building, even in the face of an obstructionist mayor’s office.
It’s About Revenue, Stupid
Even more notable is that this is a transit plan with an actual revenue strategy attached to it. That’s a major milestone for Toronto. For decades, even at the best of times, the city’s big transit plans have been typified by massive funding gaps. Council has always relied on the other orders of government to step in with the cash. It’s a strategy that has led to a lot of fancy maps and good intentions, but not much actual construction.
OneCity, by contrast, comes with a built-in plan for revenue. It suggests changing regulations to allow the city to capture value from increased assessments on next year’s property taxes. It’ll end up being equivalent to a 2% hike in property tax rates for most homeowners. That’s a pretty simple change that looks to add up to money that can actually be funnelled toward these projects.
If nothing else, it sure beats the Ford notion that the city can get money for transit by appealing to the magic powers of the private sector.
OneCity isn’t perfect, of course—not by a long shot. It proposes some transit lines and extensions of dubious value, included primarily to win the necessary votes on council. The Sheppard West subway extension, for example, clearly made the list as a bone for Councillor James Pasternak.
In fact, the full list of OneCity projects reads like a scattershot attempt to ensure that every ward in the city gets rapid transit construction. There’s little chance this whole proposed network could ever be built. And, honestly, some of the projects don’t deserve immediate attention—not until the density exists to support them, anyway.
Beyond that, the proposed revenue model—though welcome—is at least a half-step short of where it should be. The city can’t keep relying on property taxes as its only major revenue driver. A dedicated transit sales tax, coupled with increased parking fees or another user fee mechanism, would be a safer bet.
The plan also calls for substantial funding support from the provincial and federal governments, something so unlikely that it’s barely worth mentioning. Toronto needs to be prepared to move forward on its own.
Still, any criticism of the details shouldn’t take away from the significance of the announcement. This is a real proposal for real transit with some real money attached to it. Yes, the cynics know that most of this OneCity plan will never be built, but today’s announcement serves as an acknowledgement that, even under the auspices of an anti-transit mayor, Toronto is ready for an adult conversation about transit and how to pay for it.
That’s a big step forward—one that might finally get transit construction in this city up to speed.