Committed To Talking About Transit

March 17, 2014

What can we do in the face of an overwhelming lack of leadership?powervacuum1

I was thinking that, listening to Premier Kathleen Wynne explain to Matt Galloway on Metro Morning today why she’d announced pulling some possible revenue tools last week to help fund transit building. You could actually hear the political calculus at work. Or maybe it was the sound of transit planning coming to a grinding halt.

No one doubts the premier is in something of a bind here. You could make the argument she’s looking down the wrong end of history’s barrel, with twenty years of anti-tax and small government sensibilities having taken solid root in the political soil, dating back to the rise of the Reform Party in the early 90s. The Chretien/Martin deficit cutting and downloading frenzy. Mike Harris. Mel Lastman. Stephen Harper. Rob Ford.

Taxation not even seen as a necessary evil but simply evil.

Of course, her own party’s recklessness with public funds doesn’t help her cause any. taxesareevilWe all know the names by heart. Ehealth. Ornge. Gas plants. It’s a bit tough at this point for Premier Wynne to step up and ask for more money from Ontario’s residents. Trust us. We’ll spend it all very, very wisely.

And the politicking doesn’t happen in a vacuum. The opposition parties at Queen’s Park have constructed their own anti-reality bubbles in terms of revenue sources to dedicate to transit. Everybody’s got some magic beans they’re shilling, ways to get the transit needed at a cost that will come from almost nobody’s pockets. Don’t worry, folks. This won’t hurt a bit.

My guess is, as we head into the provincial budget process, the government has just handed concessions over to the NDP by vowing not to increase the gas tax, the HST or income tax on middle-class families in order to fund the Big Move. Your move now, Andrew Horwath. What does your party suggest? Using exact figures, if you don’t mind.

Who’s going to step forward first and sign their name to a tax increase or new user fee?

Because everybody knows this can’t continue. Public transit in the GTHA has to be built. That fact, at least, cuts across political lines. checkersOnly the supremely delusional Tim Hudak-led Tories are insisting it can be done without raising more revenue.

Yet, here we are, gridlocked and deadlocked.

The Liberal government has been provided with plenty of cover to take the important next step in this debate. From the non-politically realigned Metrolinx and the premier’s very own appointed Transit Investment Strategy Advisory Panel, to organization as disparate as the Toronto Region Board of Trade, CivicAction Alliance, the Pembina Institute, right down to grassroots groups like Code Red TO, all have talked up revenue tools. The pump has been primed, the ground broken.

Yet, here we are, gridlocked and deadlocked. Still.

The ugly truth about this, unfortunately, is that the well being of the party takes precedence over the strength of the idea. We’ve all been told that if party X runs with this and takes a beating in the election because of it, well, we’re right back to square one or so. partyloyaltyThe fate of transit in the GTHA hinges on the party that best touts the least amount of pain necessary to voters in order to build it.

No one’s gutsy or astute enough (both integral components of actual leadership) to step forward and challenge the conventional wisdom that voters summarily oppose taxation and are unwilling to pay more for improved service. Instead it’s just more nibbling around the edges, reframing the debate in the exact same dimensions we’ve heard for the past 20 years. Empty, empty pledges of new stuff free of charge. Promises to deliver the undeliverable.

All of which serves only to make us more cynical, more apathetic and less likely to take anything any of our politicians say seriously. Who wants to go to bat for somebody ducking from the first inside pitch they face? Why waste your time and effort?

At this point, there can be little doubt that the 3 parties representing us at Queen’s Park have failed miserably at displaying anything close to resembling leadership on the transit file. Each have wilfully disregarded the hard work and dedication put in by groups and individuals, goitalonefighting to ensure that we have a robust debate and positive outcome in dealing with an issue that threatens nothing short of our well-being and way of life in this region. We’ve been abandoned by our elected leaders.

If our provincial politicians are unwilling to provide the appropriate leadership for us, we really should start talking about why we continue to finance them and subject ourselves to their inaction and indecisiveness.

dim viewly submitted by Cityslikr


No, You First

March 14, 2014

(A heads up: this one’s going to be particularly swear-y. Those with delicate sensibilities may want to take a pass.)

strutsandfrets

I’m trying to re-jig that old axiom.

We get the politicians the strategists, consultants and pollsters they pay give us.

Yesterday, Premier Kathleen Wynne bravely stood down in the face of opposition intransigence toward new taxes to fund regional transit in the GTA, waving the white flag of political opportunism. After two reports came back, one from the provincial transit body, Metolinx, and another from the premier’s own appointed Transit Investment Strategy Advisory Panel, recommending ways to pay for the ambitious (on paper) Big Move, justsaynoPremier Wynne brushed aside two of the more substantive suggestions, the gas tax and HST.

“We are taking those potential revenue tools off the table,” she told the press. But “make no mistake”, she’s going to get this shit built. She’s just not going to tell anybody how yet.

Well, Premier Wynne, join the party. Behind every other fucking politician who cavalierly promises to tackle the pressing issue of transit in the region but deftly avoids the conversation about how exactly to pay for it. This is the line for the magic beans, right?

This is political brinksmanship at its most loathsome. Mutual assured do-nothingness. Both opposition parties at Queen’s Park have dug into their trenches and refused to so much as engage, really only popping their heads up to take the odd pot shot at the government.

brinksmanshipThe Tories have moved beyond the realm of reprehensible, promising the most expensive option of transit, the subway, with the least likely way to pay for it, finding efficiencies. They might as well just admit that they couldn’t give a flying fuck about public transit. The only reason they really addressed the issue was in order to look busy writing up white papers.

And the NDP? My political home? They’ve carved out some fucking bullshit form of populism that is trying to convince us that this can all be done through corporate taxes and a higher income tax on some miles wide interpretation of the middle class. It’s the flip side of the Conservative’s we can do all this and you won’t feel it a bit mantra.

This seems to be the avenue the government has left open to themselves. They haven’t ruled out more in corporate taxes or from high income earners. Don’t worry, people. Other people will pay for all this.whopaysforlunch

Now look, I have absolutely no problem with a renewed interest in harkening back to the olden days of using a truly progressive form of taxation via income to start addressing our social needs. It’s decades overdue. But why would I believe our politicians are prepared to have that discussion when merely saying the word ‘tax’ makes them blanch and wet themselves?

When one of these parties actually steps forward and stops referring to the middle-class as everybody who makes less than $500k/year, maybe I’ll start to think they’re serious. It’s been a long time since many of us, corporations, individuals, families, have being what we should be paying. It’s why we’re in the transit-infrastructure mess we find ourselves. We all believe somebody else should be paying for it.

But this is a game of who’s going to blink first. Nobody’s willing to take the lead on this for fear of everybody else screeching and pointing their fingers at them. hediditLook! Tax-and-spenders!! Burn them!!!

The situation is so abysmally preposterous that also yesterday, the big name left wing, NDP flavoured candidate for mayor, Olivia Chow, would only commit to property tax increases at the rate of inflation. That’s great, Olivia. That’ll maintain services at the current level. What about all the other stuff you’re going to pledge to do?

When Chow didn’t enthusiastically jump on board the DRL express, the subway build everyone has acknowledged is a priority to relieve pressure from the current lines, citing cost concerns, she was immediately jumped all over by some of the other candidates, led by the John Tory team. Hey, tax-and-spender! Why aren’t you promising to tax-and-spend some?

Now, follow me on this.

On its staff, the John Tory campaign has one Nick Kouvalis. You may remember Mr. Kouvalis from other mayoral campaigns like 2010’s Rob Ford. If you recall, there’s was much talk then of stopping a gravy train and the city government having a spending problem not a revenue problem.

Even this iteration, Kouvalis 2.0, Tory has pledged to keep taxes low. Yet building an expensive subway is priority #1. How? Not to worry. Somebody else will pay for it. You won’t feel a thing.whome1

“The only way you’re going to break this vicious cycle of waiting for public opinion that won’t come,” the Toronto Region Board of Trade’s Carol Wilding told Matt Galloway today on Metro Morning, “is to insert leadership.”

Setting aside for the time being the TRBoT’s own contribution to anti-tax fever back in 2010, Ms. Wilding isn’t off the mark. We’ve stopped demanding leadership from our politicians, letting them off the hook, content only to hear them tell us what we want to hear. Yes, things aren’t perfect. Yes, there are ways we can start fixing them. No, you don’t have to do a thing about, though. Carry on. Somebody else will sort it out.

The phrase for that is probably left as is, only slightly modified.

We get the politicians we deserve.

spitting nailsly submitted by Cityslikr


Evading A Solution

December 13, 2013

It should be easy. At least, it should be easier. There is a problem. The Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area has become bogged down in congestion. easyAs it stands now, the region’s public transit network is not up to the task of helping alleviate the situation.

So… ?

Build more transit. Pretty straightforward. It won’t be cheap, in the short term. In the long run, however, the savings will manifest themselves with a general increase in productivity that comes from increased mobility.

Besides, investing in major infrastructure isn’t exclusively about saving money. It’s about paying it forward. Investing in the future, in your children’s future, your grandchildren’s future. Playing your part in posterity like previous generation did with the roads you now use, the subway tunnels that get many of us around from point A to point B.

The details will always be prickly. The wheres and the hows will inevitably be politically loaded. (At times like these, it’s good to go back and re-read Jamie Bradburn’s great Historicist piece in Torontoist, Opposing the Subway.) Paying for shit we need is never a slam dunk case to make.

But it gets done because common sense and fair-mindedness prevail. Nobody loves paying taxes. giveandtakeThey’re just grudging necessities if we don’t all want to live in hovels in the hills.

Unfortunately, we have been living in an era where common sense and fair-mindedness are in short supply. This is how we’ve arrived at the state we’re in. Everybody hates paying taxes. They’re no longer grudging necessities but rather, egregious burdens on our lifestyles. All taxes are evil, as one of our local representatives has informed us.

In the face of such ill-will, our politicians have grown cowardly. With yesterday’s arrival of the funding report from the provincially appointed Transit Investment Strategy Advisory Panel – appointed by the province to undercut put distance between counter-balance the revenue generation report from another provincial government body, Metrolinx – the general consensus is, no political party is going to push ahead into a very likely election year with a platform of tax increases. Electoral suicide!

While it’s easy to blame them for such displays of cravenness, this is really nobody’s fault but our own. For a generation now we’ve swallowed the notion of low taxes and small governments as a path to prosperity. taxesareevilNot coincidentally, the very same generation where we’ve invested comparatively little in the public sphere. We sit behind the wheel of our cars, stuck in traffic, and wonder why. We wait half an hour for a bus before squeezing onto the crammed vehicle when it finally arrives, and wonder why. Bridges and overpasses crumble, and we wonder why.

This is the urban definition of the tragedy of the commons. We want and need something of a public service – i.e. transit – but think somebody else should pay for it. Gone is any sense of the greater good. Don’t look at me, jack. I already gave at the office.

There is little doubt that the ruling Liberals at Queen’s Park have for 7 years now, since the inception of Metrolinx, been doing their damndest to avoid the issue of funding public transit expansion in the GTHA. It was very much the very last piece of the puzzle they sought. When it came time to finally have the discussion, they desperately searched for partners to participate in what would definitely be tough talk.

And everybody blinked, looked the other way, made like it wasn’t their problem to help solve.

Toronto city council demurred to put in their two cents, choosing instead to draw up a list of we’d prefer nots.passthebuck

The provincial NDP said the revenue should be generated solely from the corporate sector. Details to follow.

The PCs, now the fossilized remnants of the political movement that kick started the divestment in the public good, assure us we can totally pay for the transit we want by tightening our belts and dipping into the pools of unnecessary current expenditures to build capital infrastructure. Translation? Since Bill Davis, we are the party of could give a fuck about public transit.

There can be little doubt that the parties and their pollsters have delved deep into this issue and concluded beyond the shadow of a doubt that taxing (even dedicated taxing) and spending (even on something we should be spending on) remains a losing campaign platform. Nobody’s convinced Transit Champions will put their party over the top.

Before we tsk tsk our politicians for their unwillingness to nobly go down to defeat fighting for a good cause, maybe we should try and figure out how we can contribute to making it more of a winning atmosphere for pro-transit building proponents. rollingrockEfforts have started with organizations like the CivicAction Alliance, Toronto Board of Trade and the city’s Feeling Congested. But 30 years of conventional wisdom that’s told us governments are the problem isn’t effortlessly overturned. It’s difficult convincing people that their long held, self-centred, narrow focus is working at cross-purposes to their best interests.

It will seem as if we’re beating our heads against a brick wall because we, in fact, are. Eventually though, even the hardest stone breaks. You just have to keep pounding away at it.

loudly 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