We Know The Why. It’s The How That Escapes Us.

Last week a group of economists, going by the name of Canada’s Ecofiscal Commission, issued a report entitled We Can’t Get There From Here: Why Pricing Traffic Congestion Is Critical To Beating It. cantgettherefromhereIt is, by any measure, a vital read and an important addition to the arsenal in the ongoing War on the Car war of words. As a matter of fact, no, drivers don’t fully pay for their use of the roads. We think it’s time, way past it, that we start making up the difference.

So, take this criticism that’s forthcoming in the spirit intended, from someone who is totally behind the concept of road pricing. And forgive me if I wind up mixing this report with the panel discussion I attended on Tuesday, a week ago, the day following the report’s release. That may well have been more market-oriented, let’s say, than the document that gave rise to it, colouring my impression of the report in a way that might not be there in just the words that are written.

As thorough as this report is, I couldn’t help think it glossed over a couple key issues. The first is the cost of the infrastructure necessary to implement any type of road pricing option. One of Tuesday’s panelists, Postmedia’s Andrew Coyne, gave the impression that it was as easy as handing out transponders and, Bob’s yer uncle. The money just starts flowing in.

The high cost of implementing road pricing is often an impediment to jurisdictions. Icongestionf it costs more than it brings in, how will that help already cash-strapped municipalities, even with financial assistance from similarly cash-strapped senior levels of government? The report points out that even the highly successful London, England congestion charge system doesn’t yet pay for itself. Isn’t such a high cost prohibitive to the idea of rolling out the pilot projects the report emphasizes as necessary to contend with the inevitable pushback to road tolls that will initially happen from the driving public?

This, of course, speaks to one of the more important points the report highlights: determining the objectives of road pricing right from the outset. It might not be about generating revenue, a “tax grab”, to use the common parlance. It is possible a reasonable toll rate cannot pay for itself plus produce extra money in which to re-invest into other projects or meet simple maintenance demands. So why on earth would any government pursue such a policy?congestion3

Road pricing might be pitched as a basic matter of fairness, making drivers pay more toward the true cost of their mobility choice. Tolls could also act as a disincentive to driving, a nudge to try other transportation modes. A tool of behavioral modification to get people out of their cars and into more active ways of getting around.

State your reason(s) for pursuing a policy of road pricing and get busy selling to the public, a very wary public it will be too.

Bringing me to my second bone of contention with this report and the public presentation I saw. How to get an initial buy-in from the public, this wary public, this voting public. It’s the biggest nut to crack, in my opinion, one too easily treated as simply an after-thought, a matter of basic information delivery and education.

The panel discussion leaned too heavily in its blasé, free-market approach to the matter. The ‘We’re all rational actors reacting rationally to rational discussion and market determined price points’ point of view. Generally speaking, I have trouble with that angle of argument, and specifically, when it comes to the topic of cars and driving. congestion1We’re in no way rational when it comes to our driving habits. If we were, the rational argument that single-occupancy vehicles are the most irrational, most expensive, least efficient way of moving people around a city and region would have won out decades ago.

That the primacy of cars still prevails, that any challenge to it has to be couched in delicate terms, is proof positive that driving and reliance on private automobiles remains divorced from reality. Pointing out that pricing road use works well in other places may convince a few of the unconvinced but it usually leads to the pushback reaction of: Well, we’re not other places. The ludicrousness of the debate about tolls (or other forms of de-congestion taxation like the recent transit-directed sales tax increases in California) having to put some of the money raised back into new road construction reveals just how ingrained driver privilege and unreasonableness truly is.

None of this is to say that the We Can’t Get There From Here report isn’t invaluable. congestion2Any promotion of a reasoned debate on road pricing should be welcomed and read thoroughly. Its arguments shouted to and from the hilltops.

But if it doesn’t come with helpful suggestions how to successfully sell road pricing to a skeptical, unwilling public, its benefits will be limited. We have been talking about this (along with other ways of funding our way out of congestion) for some time now. Very little traction has been made. One of the panelists last week, Cherise Burda, sat on the Ontario Transit Investment Strategy Advisory Panel chaired by Anne Golden that 2 years ago tabled revenue generation ideas to be dedicated to building public transit initiatives. Two years ago! With very little subsequent movement since.

“If it were an easy thing to do,” Premier Kathleen Wynne said at the time, “it would have been done already.” congestion4So much so that her government has chosen instead to pursue the unpopular goal of selling off 60% of a public utility in order to raise money for public transit. Without public support, there will be little political courage to put a true cost to driving, tolls, taxes or otherwise.

A report that tells us how to convince the driving public to pay more for the privilege of doing what they think they already pay more than enough for is the report we really need right now.

howly submitted by Cityslikr

Transit Intransigence

Just a quick (here’s hoping) update on the post yesterday re the Brampton city council rejection of the north of Steeles section of the proposed Hurontario-Main LRT, and the ugly horrors the intrusion of parochial interests have on transit planning. columbo1(Still looking at you, Councillor Glenn De Baeremaeker).

I late linked to a more in-depth article about the Brampton debacle from Sean Marshall at Marshall’s Musings. If you didn’t catch it then, I advise you to do so now. Here’s a snippet.

The Hurontario-Main corridor was selected for LRT simply because it is one of the busiest transit corridors in the Greater Toronto Area outside the City of Toronto; it connects three GO lines and several major bus corridors, it would help urbanize south Brampton and several neighbourhoods in Mississauga. It’s part of a larger regional network, yet six city councillors in Brampton, looking out for narrow, local interests, sunk it.

Earlier in the post, Marshall points out that the line at its proposed southernmost terminus, at the Port Credit waterfront, had been snipped off in a similarly, if less dramatic fashion, due to what he called “community opposition”.

This brought to mind stories our Los Angeles correspondent, Ned Teitelbaum, told us about the obstacle that city faces in its transit plans, a place called Beverly Hills, swimming pools and movie stars. It is one of 88 municipalities in Los Angeles County, home to 35,000 of the county’s 10 million people, and yet it has the heft to be constantly throwing up road blocks to wider regional projects. Bike lanes? Forget it. Rush hour dedicated bus lanes? No way, José. As for a westward subway extension tunneled under Beverly Hills High? Ummmm…

Yikes!

What often times gets lost in the back-and-forth debate over transit planning and proposed projects, all the wonkery and nerd talk pushing it from polite conversation, is any discussion on class and race. The northern portion up into Brampton of the HMLRT was opposed by that city’s well-heeled living in big houses on Main Street. This group included former Ontario premier Bill Davis. monoclewearingTerms like ‘heritage preservation’ or ‘maintaining neighbourhood character’ get tossed around but it’s hard to avoid looking at the deeper context. Public transit is for other people.

Rarely do you hear those who depend on public transit — many, economically and socially marginalized — complain that the service is too close to where they live. That it negatively impacts the character of their street. That it threatens the heritage of their neighbourhood. How the overhead wires interfere with their view. Those kinds of concerns are for other people.

Equally, just how much say should we be giving to individual communities when it conflicts with wider objectives? Yeah, I’m talking about the greater good here. As Marshall writes in his post, the proposed Hurontario-Main LRT was chosen because it runs along “one of the busiest transit corridors” in the GTA and “connects three GO lines and several major bus corridors”. upyoursAnd it gets tossed aside because a handful of elected officials, listening to a handful of voices, albeit persuasive ones, don’t want it?

It’s a prickly situation, to be sure. I’m advocating for the railroading, so to speak, of local opinion because it’s acting as a detriment to a wider regional transportation plan for no other discernible reason aside from self-interest. But I’m at a loss how else you put the ‘we’ ahead of ‘me’ when it’s the emphasis on the latter that’s got us all bogged down in the first place.

classically submitted by Cityslikr

I Prefer ‘Doubting Thomas’

There’s a certain childlike candor, a terrible beauty, in a politician matching the simplicity of messaging to the simple-mindedness of a policy platform. “Subways! Subways! Subways! The people want Subways!” Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! I want! I want! I want! No justification, no rational, no cost-benefit pitch to it. Just a need identified and demand made.

And then, there’s this hot mess of pure obfuscation and tangential meandering of campaign tinged tired talking points.

Mayor John Tory’s SmartTrack is no more a solution to this city’s transit woes than Rob Ford’s SubwaysEverywhere chant was, yet he wants us to think otherwise, and spends a lot of words and money trying to convince us of that. Assailing critics of the project as ‘Douglas and Debbie Downers’, legitimate questions are fine, as far as they go, but what’s really needed here, the mayor stated, is for us “to start finding ways to get to Yes on things instead of finding ways to get to No.”downer

Take that, Metrolinx CEO Bruce McCuaig who, in a letter earlier this month to the city manager, Peter Wallace, called SmartTrack (an “independent and parallel service” of the province’s improved RER plans) “unaffordable and unworkable.” That’s no way to start out on a path toward Yes, Mr. McCuaig. Although Metrolinx quickly tried to smooth over that bump in the road with a subsequent media release to say that everybody’s still “continuing to work together on how to integrate key elements of the SmartTrack proposal with the Province’s GO Regional Express Rail (RER) program.”

Integrating “key elements of the SmartTrack proposal” isn’t anywhere near the same as providing an “independent and parallel service”, something that doesn’t just help move GTA commuters around the region but also contributes to the alleviation of transit congestion within the city. fineprintFor SmartTrack to work and be worth the money spent on it, it has to deliver local service as part of an express framework. So far, 11 months into the process (more like 18 if you count back to its appearance on the campaign trail) that sticky dynamic has not been worked out, not even close, judging by the staff presentation at Executive Committee yesterday.

Mayor Tory told the room that what they were reading, what staff had delivered was just “an interim report.” No need to rush to any hasty conclusions and get all Douglas Downer-ish. All would be revealed as assuredly as the sun would rise in the morning. If the route to Yes was an easy one, it would be as clogged with foot traffic as Bloor-Yonge subway platform on your average workday rush hour.

Despite his flurry of words in defense of SmartTrack and the diligent process it is currently enduring, none of the concerns critics have expressed have yet to addressed, despite the extensive work being done between the city, the province and Metrolinx, despite the millions of dollars having been spent. None. The ridership projection model still isn’t in place. emptytalkFeasibility studies are still to come. Funding sources? Yep. TBD.

Mayor Tory is the one who set the clock ticking on SmartTrack. 7 years. “Admittedly in an election campaign,” he confesses, “where I didn’t have access to squads of engineers and ridership experts and various other people. I had what I had.” Which was bupkis, it turns out, other than a craven campaign team that ran with an empty slogan it passed off as a well-thought out plan. Even now, a year later, with none of the concerns addressed, the mayor triumphantly crows about having opened both federal and provincial government cheque books wide to fund SmartTrack even with its viability still very much in question.

In your face, doubters. Douglas and Debbie Downer-Doubters.

At least the Fords, in their crass politicization of transit planning, ceased trying to con us that they had anything more than a catchy chant, an earworm, a few words to slap on an election sign. elephantintheroomMayor Tory’s insisting on wasting our time and money in an effort to prove his scheme is much more serious and worthy of consideration, and not just some campaign gimmick run up the flagpole in a successful effort to become mayor. Suggesting such a thing is simply throwing up a roadblock on the way to Yes.

Bad transit plans are not the enemy of proper city building. Doubting is.

certainly submitted by Cityslikr