Who’s Got The Wheel?

December 8, 2015

Yesterday, after the provincial government floated their rather tepid and, perhaps even, cosmetically driven tolls proposal, the following observation was floated on Twitter:

“We have government leaders who have no idea how an urban economy works. And most of this country is part of an urban economy.”

We are now a 21st-century, urban nation with a leadership class still firmly entrenched in the (generously) mid-20th-century. As former NYC Department of Transportation commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan put it last week, “when you push on the status quo, it pushes back at you.” rolltherock1Or, as our old favourites The Libertines once sang: “…the boy kicked out at the world/the world kicked back alot fuckin’ harder now.”

We have a new federal government that might get it, they might understand the needs of cities, cities making up this urban nation. But, legislatively, Ottawa’s a long way from the ground. Whatever largesse and/or expertise the feds have to offer will inevitably come filtered through provincial and local distortions. So what if we get enhanced federal money for transit infrastructure if it goes to building Mayor Tory’s SmartTrack or the provincially backed and city council approved Scarborough subway? Good money after bad and all that.

Later yesterday, Queen’s Park released a report from the David Crombie led Advisory Panel looking at and making recommendations for the provincial government’s 4 growth plans for the Greater Golden Horseshoe region. The region’s been growing, grown significantly since the end of World War II, and will continue growing significantly over the next 25 years. The population looks to almost double in that time, from 9 million to nearly 13.5 million. Here’s the concern, and some of what the 4 growth plans were brought in to combat:

The extent of settlement has also grown. For example, between 1971 and 2006, the region’s urban footprint more than doubled. Much of the recent urban growth has been in the form of low-density, car-dependent suburbs, providing many residents with affordable, single-detached homes. However, this form of development, often known as urban sprawl, has resulted in loss of farmland, traffic congestion, deteriorating air and water quality, impacts on human health, and the loss of green space, habitats and biodiversity. The changing climate and increasing frequency and severity of extreme weather events create additional pressures on the region’s communities, agricultural production, infrastructure and natural systems.

The Advisory Panel’s recommendations are unsurprising, really. Encouraging intensification through use of “existing urban areas” (while protecting employment lands), greater public transit-based initiatives “to support complete communities” and “greater integration of infrastructure planning with land use planning”, yaddie, yaddie, yaddie. rolltherock3We already know this. None of it is particularly new or noteworthy. I guess it’s worthwhile to repeat and underline these ideas of healthy growth but still…

How many Advisory Panels have we had, telling us the things we have to do to improve this region’s quality of life as it continues to grow? I mean, if Anne Golden had a nickel for every panel she’s chaired to advise government policy, she’d have, what? A dime? Fifteen cents?

Remember her last outing, as chair of the provincially appointed Transit Investment Strategy Advisory Panel? Yeah, it took 3 months to make 20 recommendations for raising revenue to fund the Big Move, leaning heavily on increased gas taxes while rejecting tolls in the short term as “too difficult to implement”. That was 2 years ago. The provincial government’s response to date? Its weak sauce toll announcement yesterday.

The fundamental problem with all these panels is that they tend to come back after studying a policy issue with recommendations that challenge the status quo. Complete communities? What’ll happen to my backyard? Pay for using the roads?! I already pay more than my fair share! I deserve a subway! Subways, subways, subways!!

Pushback from the status quo. Leaders with their ears to the ground can only hear the stamping of feet. Politicians love the word ‘change’ on their campaign signs but blanch in the face of bringing it about, all those red, outraged faces to contend with? rolltherock6Where angels fear to tread, amirite?

Sure, things are bad now but what if these changes you’re talking about makes things worse? Nothing’s 100% guaranteed. Despite all data, information and examples to the contrary, from where I’m standing, the grass over there doesn’t look all that much greener.

Our propensity to fearfully embrace what-we-know so tightly makes for an uphill battle to enact the changes we need. The grade’s made steeper still when our elected officials not only fail to directly address this tentativeness but, in fact, give in to it for even just the slightest step forward. That’s why for every bid our government’s pitch for increased public transit funding and investment, we see assurances of road and highway expansion. Despite working at cross purposes, to attempt to even slightly modify the status quo, we must show that the status quo won’t change that much.

Speaking at Simon Fraser University just a month or so after submitting the report and recommendations of the Transit Investment Strategy Advisory Panel, Anne Golden talked about a government’s need for trust from the public in order to pursue new measures like revenue generation for transit building. rolltherock‘Tax grab’ is an almost immediate reaction from a skeptical public, digging in their heels further against any sort of change. There has to be buy in based on a belief that it’s not only going to be money well spent but be beneficial to everyone. What’s in it for me?

When you have a reputation of not spending money wisely which the Liberal government at Queen’s Park has certainly earned, or when your transit plans appear to be politically motivated and easily subject to the whims of parochialism – Hello, Scarborough subway! – public trust is in even shorter supply. Resistance to change grows stronger.

You can point all you want to places that have turned the corner, embraced changed and a new approach to mobility and city building. Look! New York’s doing it! Don’t you want to be like New York? You always want to be like New York! But we look around closer to home and see what all needs to be done, what we’ve done so far and conclude such change is beyond our reach. The Sheppard subway remains a glaring white elephant with the Union-Pearson Express set to join it. We can’t even muster the will to clear road space for our busiest transit routes like the Finch bus or King streetcar. rolltherock4How on earth can we expect to meet the challenges of the 21st-century?

I’m sure plenty of our government leaders are well aware of how a modern urban economy works. What they don’t know is how to convince enough of us that we need to move in that direction. Too many flinch at the slightest sign of resistance, retreat in the face of loud, blustery noises.

It’d be great to leave off on that note. Place the blame elsewhere and carry on, absolved. But, you know, that old saw nags, a variation on getting the leadership we deserve. Not enough of us have been pushed from our comfort zone. Things are bad but they’re not that bad. They could always be worse.

Until such time, when enough of us conclude that, in fact, it is that bad (never an easily determined point on the scale), we’ll hum and haw, rail at the ineffectualness of our elected officials and uncaring bureaucracy, wonder about why we’re not those other places, doing exceptional, exciting things and hope that it won’t be too late to make those changes we were urged to make years, decades earlier.

rolltherock5

rocknrollingly submitted by Cityslikr


Shouldn’t You Be Dead If You’re Taxed To Death?

December 9, 2013

With the Toronto Star’s Tess Kalinowski reporting over the weekend that the Anne Golden-led seriousdiscussionTransit Investment Strategy Advisory Panel will be recommending some sort of corporate tax as part of an overall funding plan to start building transit, I say, good. Can we now start seriously discussing our transit needs and how to pay from them? Can we? Huh? Please?

One of the sticking points so far, at least for some progressive voices on the left side of political spectrum, was the very conspicuous absence of ‘A Corporate Tax’ option in the funding columns of either the city’s Feeling Congested and Metrolinx’s discussions earlier this year on revenue streams. This was a non-starter for many who legitimately wondered why individuals alone were being asked to shoulder the cost of new transit projects that would also serve to help the needs of the business community. An oversight, let’s call it, made even more fishy since one of the biggest cheerleaders for a massive regional investment in transit infrastructure was the Toronto Board of Trade.

Hey everybody (but our members)! We’re in this together (except for our members). Dig into your pockets and pay for the transit we so desperately need!*cavedwelling

But now it’s there on the table, and for anyone using its previous lack of presence as an excuse not to talk or even so much as consider a discussion about taxation as a means to fund transit expansion, well, time to step out into the open. Your cover’s been blown. I commend you for putting corporate taxation back into the mix but it won’t pay for everything. Let’s start talking turkey.

I won’t get into the nitty-gritty yet as the panel’s recommendations don’t go public until Thursday but let’s just say that my hope is that this can kick start a wider discussion beyond just transit needs to reclaiming the idea of taxation from its current status as some filthy word spat out in disgust.

At last week’s budget committee deputations, retired teacher Don Quinlan referred to Toronto as ‘a rich city that doesn’t act like it.’ taxesareevilThat’s borne out by the fact residents of this city, on average, pay below the GTA average in property taxes. When given the opportunity to relieve pressure off the property tax base with other revenue streams, i.e. the Vehicle Registration Tax, we couldn’t elect a city council fast enough to repeal it. The Land Transfer Tax remains under constant threat.

For a generation now (at least), we’ve been trying to run a city on the cheap and then find ourselves surprised at the lack of good state of repair in almost every aspect of our infrastructure. Crumbling roads. Decrepit social housing. Bursting watermains. Substandard public transit. How did this happen, we ask ourselves, and immediately begin looking around for the easiest answers that won’t cost us anything. Lazy unions. Profligate spending. Inefficient bureaucracies.

To be fair, municipalities have been largely abandoned on many of these files by senior levels of government that operate, not at all coincidentally, on a similar Taxes Are Bad approach. Shit rolls downhill, leaving governments with the least amount of financial flexibility to deal with the ugly results. This has lead to a nasty zero sum race to the bottom with city councils facing tough either/or choices between vital services and programs. Public housing or public transit? Child care or after school programs?

The grim situation, however, only gets exacerbated when we mirror such anti-tax sentiment. freeClearly, many self-proclaimed fiscal conservatives believed our tax intolerance was not such that we’d mind an annual half percent property tax hike to pay for a Scarborough subway extension. So let’s keep that conversation going. What else is on our wish/to do list?

Enough already with the burden of taxation. At this point, we’re getting exactly what it is we’re willing to pay for. We either accept that and live with it without complaining or we start putting our money where our collective mouth is. Anything less than that is a shirking of our responsibility and just plain flat out freeloading.

— seriously submitted by Cityslikr

 

*excluding Board of Trade members


The Golden Rule

September 17, 2013

When it was announced last week that Anne Golden had been approached by the Ontario government to head up a panel to look at revenue generation to go toward building transit in the GTHA, hidebehindI joked that we should all be very excited as Queen’s Park has a history of listening to recommendations made by a panel chaired by Ms. Golden. Listening perhaps, then ignoring.

OK, joke may be too strong a word for it. That would suggest the statement was funny. More sagging, really. Under the weight of bitter, disillusioned sarcasm.

But it did get me thinking about the old Golden Report on the governance, competitiveness blah, blah, blah of the GTA, commissioned back in the twilight of the Bob Rae government. Delivered up to the Mike Harris crew in the early days of that government, it was greeted largely with a shrug. It wasn’t something they’d asked for.

That’s not exactly true either. The Harris Tories did use the report as a little bit of cover in the next couple years as they descended into an amalgamation frenzy including the one here in Toronto. Reading through Andrew Sancton’s account of what happened, shrugAmalgamations, Service Realignment, and Property Taxes: Did the Harris Government Have a Plan for Ontario’s Municipalities?, the immediate impression is of the ad hoc nature of it all.

To begin with, the idea of amalgamation wasn’t really on the party’s radar when it sat on the opposition benches at Queen’s Park. It certainly wasn’t a key part of the Common Sense Revolution. Here’s Mike Harris speaking in 1994, less than a year before he took over the reins of power.

There is no cost to a municipality to maintain its name and identity. Why destroy our roots and pride? I disagree with restructuring because it believes that bigger is better. Services always cost more in larger communities. The issue is to find out how to distribute services fairly and equally without duplicating services.

Bigger isn’t better? “Services always cost more in larger communities”? This was the exact opposite of what we were being told by the provincial government when they were ramming the megacity down our throats. aboutfaceHow times changed.

Sixteen years on, water under the bridge aside from pointing out that the 1994 Mike Harris was right about amalgamations while Premier Mike Harris was wrong. The change of heart might be easier to accept if there’d been a straight forward reason why he did what he did but there really didn’t seem to be.

Sure, there was the desire to bury the dissenting voice of the old city of Toronto’s council under the more friendly voices of the suburban municipalities but that seems to be just a small part of it. The Tories also wanted to remove the taxation power of school boards and put them on a tight fiscal leash. Plus, the whole matter of updating the property tax system was also in play.

Perhaps as important as any of these, the provincial government needed to keep a campaign promise of reducing government. Any ol’ government would do, regardless of the consequences. Six municipalities into one, plus Metro council? A double fucking trifecta.

Keeping up appearances, in other words. This anti-government government eliminating levels of government. It would make for good re-election campaign literature.

There are echoes of this jumbled miasma of reasoning currently going on with our whole heave-ho debate on transit. Everybody knows that the region’s public transit system is substandard. decisionsdecisions1Everybody knows that we’re going to have to pay substantially for the necessarily substantial expansion.

That seems to be where the agreement ends. Who pays? Who knows. What gets built where? Another head shaker. There are metrics to quantify the debate just like there were during the era of amalgamation. Unfortunately, few are very politically palatable.

Adding Anne Golden to the mix only serves to fuel the feeling that the provincial government is doing little more than throwing up more obstacles. Decisions aren’t the desirable outcome here. The appearance of process is, due diligence.

What’s weird about the way the Liberals are going about things here is, unlike how the Harris government did an about face on amalgamation, the Liberals are subverting a plan they themselves put into place. The Big Move. A breakdown of transit needs and priorities throughout the region and a smorgasbord of possible revenue tools to access in order to implement the plan.

Already the Eglinton crosstown construction is underway. selfsabotageThe Master Agreement with Toronto has been signed for 3 other LRT lines, one being the Scarborough LRT extension of the Bloor-Danforth subway line that the government seems determined to undermine at this point, ably assisted by a majority of city council. The motivation behind such a move is hard to discern.

You could just write it off to pure political pandering, to keep those Scarborough seats red in any upcoming provincial election. Pretty straightforward. But if it’s just that, why not go all in and build an actual subway? You know, at least all the way up to Sheppard? That way, you can put pressure on the proposed Sheppard LRT too. A subway to the west. A subway to the east. Complete the line from Yonge to Kipling with a Sheppard subway loop.

This two stop proposal just seems like a half-measure. How could this government be that invested and find themselves at this point of time so indecisive? To give the Harris government its due, they did a 180 on amalgamation and in the face of fierce political opposition pushed it through, damn the torpedoes. headlesschickenThese Liberals appear to have little inclination to be as bold even when they have the good cause on their side.

Instead of having to pull some clarity (misguided and malevolent as it was in the case of amalgamation) out of a stew of conflicting policy initiatives, the McGuinty-Wynne government seem bound and determined to reduce transit planning in the region to a chaotic mix of parochialism and unfinished business. If you are able to find a coherent narrative as to why, you have much better eyes for this kind of thing than I do. I just see a glaring lacking of leadership and a desperate desire for expediency coalescing into an all familiar puddle of incompetence that has plagued this city and region in transit building for a generation now.

disheartenedly submitted by Cityslikr