How to fund transit plans?

published in The Star by Opinion

It surely comes as no surprise to most people to hear that traffic congestion is growing steadily worse in the Greater Toronto Area. But a useful new report highlights just how severe the gridlock has become and underscored the need for decisive action.

Average rush hour traffic speed dropped by 17 per cent between 2001 and 2006 — more than double the decline experienced over the previous 15 years, according to the study released Monday by the Toronto City Summit Alliance. Average time spent commuting jumped by 16 per cent. Meanwhile public transit is increasingly crowded, greenhouse gas emissions from cars are rising, and the cost of the area’s chronic gridlock, in lost employee time and delayed deliveries, now exceeds $3 billion each year.

Worse, pressure on our strained transportation systems is set to intensify over the next two decades, with three million more people expected to live in the GTA and Hamilton by 2031. The increase in population will mean 1.5 million additional cars on the roads.

“We have reached a turning point,” write authors of the TCSA report. “This situation cannot go on . . . we have to find solutions.”

Many of the solutions can be found in the “Big Move,” a bold plan put forward by Metrolinx, the regional transportation authority. It would expand public transit across the GTA. But the requires $50 billion (in 2008 dollars) to implement, and so far less than one-quarter of that amount has been committed by governments. “This requires remedy if the benefits of the Big Move are to be reaped,” authors of the report correctly conclude. “Additional funding streams are crucial.”

The report goes on to list 12 practical ways to raise the necessary funding — including some potential billion-dollar schemes, like a 10-cent per kilometre toll for using major highways; a 1 per cent regional sales tax, or a new 10-cent per litre tax on fuel. Also proposed are a series of lesser cash generators, such as a $20 yearly surcharge on utility bills, which would raise a potential $50 million.

These funding options, along with a similar list advanced last month by the Toronto Board of Trade, provide a realistic framework for debate. A mix of approaches will likely be necessary, given the profound transportation challenge confronting the GTA. Whether tolls are part of the mix, or a series of other fees, it is vital that provincial politicians, municipal election candidates and, indeed, the public at large begin debating the trade-offs.