A better way to build public transit?

Start by asking how taxpayers are going to pay for it

How do you get 2.7 million people’s heads around the idea of paying for transit? Here’s a start: Nobody say “subways.”

Both the City of Toronto and its provincial overlords are on a mission for 2013: Sell the public on the idea that if they want less gridlock—which is to say, more public transit—then they’re going to have to pay for it with taxes, tolls or levies.

But what the city’s not doing this time around is even more telling. Historically, transit expansion starts with politicians drawing hopeful lines on a map and then trying to find ways to pay for those lines. This has led to decades of transit fiascos as plans got drawn, redrawn, hacked to bits and then finally half-built.

So now, the city is taking a smarter tack: It’s starting with asking how taxpayers are going to pay for transit, while deferring talk about what exactly that money would pay for. It’s counterintuitive—all stick, no carrot—but it makes a great deal of sense.

“What we’re trying to do right now is focus on principles, which is a good place to start,” Jen Keesmaat, Toronto’s new chief-planner told me, as she rolled out “Feeling Congested,” the city’s new consultation. Those principles involve some general talk about priorities, but the nut of the issue is choosing (lucky us) how we’d like to be taxed.

So, despite the protestations of Toronto’s increasingly sidelined mayor, both city and province are making a full-court press to get this through to the general public, in a blitz of live consultations, op-eds and media hits. The city has also put up a website with an online budgeting exercise that’s worth taking a poke at. It assays 14 “revenue tools,” ranging from a sales tax to development charges to parking levies. Among other things, the site hammers at the idea that no single revenue option will be enough; we’ll probably need a combination. And not all revenue tools are created equal: development tools, for instance, yield nowhere near the returns of parking levies.

(Pointedly, some would-be revenue tools the mayor’s office likes to talk up just didn’t make the list. These include vaguely defined “public-private partnerships,” which, for money-losing projects like transit expansion, are more often a method of administering public funds, than of generating them.)

It’s quite a conversation to be having with an electorate that, less than three years ago, voted in Rob Ford on the explicit premise that he’d cut taxes like the Land Transfer Tax and the now-defunct Vehicle Registration Tax. The difference now is the promise of dedicated funding.

“Before, with the LTT, the VRT, it was just another bloody tax,” says Keesmaat. “What we’re doing right now is saying, hold on a minute, what if that tax got you all these transit lines? Then are you willing to pay it? Does that seem worth it to you? That’s very different than kissing your money goodbye and not knowing where it goes.”

But before they start naming all these projects, the city’s bureaucrats want to talk money. It’s a refreshing reversal of the way transit planning has been run for decades, putting politics first and planning second. For the moment, it keeps the unfortunate “subway vs. streetcar” debate at bay. It shouldn’t be complicated: Toronto needs both, but built in the right places for each. Yet there’s no surer way to turn transit planning into a political football, then to start talking about which citizens “deserve” a subway. (“It’s an absurdity to be debating, at a city-wide level, subways versus LRTs,” said Keesmaat.)

The money-first approach is even more meaningful in the long-term. Since the municipality is so limited in the ways it can legally raise money, trying to fund big projects has long meant begging senior levels of government to cough up huge sums.

It hasn’t worked terribly well. In practice, it’s meant waiting for transit-building ambitions to line up with political fortunes. It means waiting for three governments at three levels who are willing to work together, which is like waiting for three gold bars at a slot machine. It also means waiting for the right people to take the right important roles: When the MPP for Vaughan became Ontario’s Minister of Finance, a $2.5-billion subway extension to a scrubby local field managed to become reality.

And then there’s timing. Politicians like legacy projects, but transit schemes take so long to implement that they become ideal targets for cuts when their successors take over. Even if governments survive, their willingness to spend might not. Governments start looking at megaprojects when they want stimulus spending, then lose interest when the economy recovers and the government is left in the red. The result is that we make half-hearted stabs at building transit when the economy tanks, but never keep pace when development’s booming. Toronto’s transit map is dotted with projects that were conceived for bad reasons and cancelled for worse ones.

After all this, the technocracy is fighting back. Shifting transit funding from top-down to bottom-up—cutting a deal straight with the taxpayer—helps depoliticize the process, setting up revenue streams that could survive from one government to the next. Even Ontario opposition leader Tim Hudak, speaking at the Toronto Region Board of Trade, wouldn’t rule out revenue tools, even as he launched once again into how Scarberians deserve subways in order to be “full citizens.”

The irony, of course, is that Rob Ford himself, who wouldn’t talk money, was the one who led us to talk about nothing but. His campaign for subways, subways, subways helped stoke the public appetite for transit expansion, even as he insisted that taxpayers wouldn’t have to pay extra for it. Ford’s rude encounter with reality helped foster a rare consensus that more transit is needed, but that there’s one way to get it built, and it’s not wishful thinking.

“We’re kind of calling that out,” said Keesmaat. “We’re being very clear: There’s no pot of gold. If we want to invest in public transit, we have to find the revenue tools to pay for it. It’s that simple.”