Transit Problem? Gee, You’re Right!

Toronto Politics

5 minute read

April 5, 2013

Marcus Gee of the Globe & Mail is one of Toronto’s best newspaper columnists, and on Thursday, he coined the term, “Lost Generation” in regards to our transit troubles.

I don’t think it can be summed up any better.  Another generation, another opportunity lost…

“We Cannot Afford Another Lost Generation”
By: Marcus Gee

Globe & Mail
April 4th, 2013

When reporters asked what he thought about new tolls or taxes to build transit, Mayor Rob Ford made his feelings clear. He bent over as if to throw up and made a retching noise. Many overburdened taxpayers will feel the same way about the prospect of handing over more of their hard-earned income. But what should really make Torontonians feel ill is the prospect of blowing another chance to build a big-city mass-transit system.

Toronto opened its last major subway line in 1966 when the Beatles were still together. Civic leaders have been talking for decades about the dreamed-of Downtown Relief Line. Relief never comes. It is our biggest civic failure and it could be our downfall.

Toronto is evolving from city to metropolis. It just passed Chicago in population to become the fourth biggest city in North America. Metrolinx head Bruce McCuaig notes that the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area is adding more than 100,000 people a year. Unless we can find a way to move people around efficiently, we will strangle on our own growth.

Other world cities are making massive investments in high-level transit. Britain is spending a staggering $23-billion on the Crossrail line spanning London from east to west and designed to relieve crowding on the Tube. Seoul, which opened its first subway only in 1974, now has a web of nine lines over 327 kilometres of track, with three big expansion projects under way. Even Stockholm, with a population in its main urban area about half the size of Toronto’s, has 100 Metro stations to Toronto’s 69.

This city has been moving at a walk while others advance at a run. We simply can’t afford to waste another generation.

Fortunately, we now have a real chance to move forward. Metrolinx, the provincial transit agency, has drawn up a comprehensive 25-year plan, The Big Move, to build out the transit system. It is about to present a plan on how to pay for it.

An energetic new Premier, Kathleen Wynne, seems determined to do something. She told CBC Radio’s Metro Morning that Toronto can’t wait another 25 years for progress. She is more open to new transit levies than any recent premier. For a minority leader under constant attack from her opponents, even to talk about new taxes is bold indeed. Bold leadership is what we need.

The time is ripe. With rising gridlock and more and more crowding on transit, a consensus is taking shape on the need for dramatic action. Civic leadership groups, from the board of trade to CivicAction, are lining up with demands for progress and plans to pay for it. At long last, we are having that “adult conversation” about transit funding that timorous politicians have avoided for so long.

Vancouver has a 17-cent transit tax on gas. Los Angeles voters approved a 0.5-per-cent hike in the sales tax to pay for transit.

Naturally, any new tax or levy will run into opposition, but what is the realistic alternative? Metrolinx needs $2-billion a year to pay for The Big Move. The left, under the NDP’s Andrea Horwath, says it is unfair to make “everyday families” pay more. She’d like corporate taxation, or more money from Ottawa. But how likely is it that a federal government struggling to balance its books will come through with billions for transit? How sensible would it be to put a bigger burden on business in a struggling economy?

The right, under Conservative Tim Hudak, says Queen’s Park is spending too much already and should not even consider new taxes till it cuts waste. But even the toughest cost cutter would struggle to find enough savings in the budget to pay for the massive investment required for transit.

What makes transit levies more palatable than most is that they wouldn’t go into the general trough. They would be dedicated exclusively to transportation needs. Rob Ford’s retch notwithstanding, even the most hard-pressed drivers or strap-hangers might be able to stomach paying more if they could see the money going to tunnels, trains and roads.

What none of us can stomach is what will come from doing nothing.



“Lost Generation.”

It’s so true.

Whether you see the word “generation” and think of a full 30-40 year cycle of a family, or whether it could represent, say, a 4-year political cycle, the term holds true for the ineptitude of those who have tried to do something about Toronto’s transit problem.

What’s worse?  The thought of 47 years passing since a major subway line opened in Toronto?  Or the thought of ten or more cycles of city councillors, who have come and gone, and done absolutely, positively nothing?

I was driving east on King Street last week with a client, looking at condos, and when we passed John Street, I told my client, “See that?  See the Prince of Wales Theatre?  David Mirvish wants to build three eighty-storey towers on that site.”

My client didn’t believe me.

And when I reaffirmed the idea, he just shook his head and said, “Why?”

I didn’t have an answer, other than the obvious: money, fame, legacy, ego.

But why would our city need that?  How could it happen?  How could a city councillor, city planner, or any politician, really, allow such a blight in our downtown core?

It’s simple, really; our city lacks, and always has lacked, capable, responsible, city servants who have foresight and a plan for the future of the city.

I was in university the first time I heard about plans to expand Toronto’s subway system, and I wrote an essay on the matter – back in the late 1990’s.

Nothing has been accomplished since.

Just as our city politicians can’t stop the rapid, unnecessary, and unsightly condo-boom, they also can’t seem to wrap their heads around the idea of actually putting a shovel into the ground and improving public transit.

As I’ve said before many times: I do not take the TTC.  I probably use the subway once a year, or less, and I’ve been known to ask the man behind the glass, “One billet for the tube, if you please!”

But as a proud Torontonian, I’m upset with the lack of progress at City Hall.

If Rob Ford manages to get through an entire four-year term without putting a shovel in the ground, it’ll be……well…….well, it’ll be bad, but it’ll be the same as David Miller…

Year, after year, after decade – we sit and wait, and our city councillors rise and bicker with one another.

Gridlock on the roads is caused by gridlock at city hall, and as Mr. Gee writes in his article, the “adult conversation” needs to be had.

I make the assumption, and the political scholars can correct me if I’m wrong here, than during any 4-year political term, the first two years are the only period during which actual change and/or progress will be made.  The second two years are spent campaigning for another term, and trying desperately to avoid doing anything that would upset even one constituent.

So I assume that no progress will be made on Toronto’s public transit mess until Rob Ford’s first term as mayor comes to a miserable end.

What to build, where to build it, how to build it – these questions haven’t been answered (or asked, really), but as Mr. Gee writes, the money is at the forefront of the issue.

I for one would be in favor of a gas tax, sales tax, income tax, toll road, or levy – just about anything (other than more parking cops and land transfer tax) to get the billions and billions of dollars needed to bring Toronto’s transit up to speed.

Because by the time Toronto catches up to other world-class cities, they’ll have already gone ahead and doubled their transit systems.

Rob Ford retched when it was suggested that we use tax dollars to pay for new transit, but give him a pass, since he clearly doesn’t understand basic math.

After all, he didn’t understand that his vote on city council only counts for one, and he clearly couldn’t count past himself, and his brother Doug…

Written By David Fleming

David Fleming is the author of Toronto Realty Blog, founded in 2007. He combined his passion for writing and real estate to create a space for honest information and two-way communication in a complex and dynamic market. David is a licensed Broker and the Broker of Record for Bosley – Toronto Realty Group

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  1. Paully

    at 8:41 am

    There is actually a second platform under Queen Station for a then-envisioned east-west line along Queen. All that it is ever used for now is movie shoots. Wouldn’t it be amazing to just hop on a subway in the east or west end and zip straight into the city core with no transfers? The original subway planners thought so, and they built a station to prove it.

    Where has the foresight gone? When the Bloor Viaduct was conceived and built, it was designed with the strength and space to accommodate a future subway that did not even exist at the time!!!

    Building subways takes cars off the roads, as long as the subways are built where the people want to go, not in some politically inspired place. Look at the Scarborough RT. Most of the stops are useless.

    1. Frances

      at 1:12 am

      The Scarborough RT was useless right from the start. The province wanted that system and the city went along with it but it should have been subway all the way.

      1. jeff316

        at 10:09 pm

        No, it shouldn’t have been a subway. It doesn’t have the ridership nor the density.

        1. Joe Q.

          at 3:56 pm

          Agreed with Jeff316 here — even a busway would have made more sense. In the end, as Frances notes, the province wanted a particular “made-in-Ontario” technology and since they controlled the purse-strings, that’s what they got.

    2. Joe Q.

      at 3:58 pm

      Actually, I think the platform built underneath the current Queen Station was meant for an underground streetcar line, kind of like the current Harbourfront line — not really for a subway as we know it now.

  2. johnny chase

    at 8:54 am

    We don’t need any new taxes, fees or service charges to fund transit. They need to find 2% from the existing $400 Billion budget to fund it.

    But I’ll be a team player and say thay if they can even find 1% from the budget, then I’ll agree to a new didicated tax. The City and Provence need to do their part and become more efficient. Watching the St. Clair streetcar go from the initial estimate of $48M to now over $150M just show what kind of trouble we’re going to be in if we let the City handle infrastrructure.

    The CPPIB should buy the TTC and operate and expand the service.

    1. Joe Q.

      at 12:02 pm

      I believe most of the cost inflation on the St Clair West streetcar project was due to scope creep. Instead of just putting in the streetcar ROW, they also decided (after the project was approved) to completely replace the existing sewer, fresh water and electrical service under the street. This increased the cost and the time it took to complete the work.

      1. johnny chase

        at 12:48 pm

        You could call it scope creep, but I prefer to call it for what it was – incompetance. These items should have been done when the road was dug up as they needed relpacement specifically due to the streetcars – otherwise it wouldn’t have been included in the TTC budget, it would have come from the to water and sewer budget. Just like how they now have to redo the platforms for the new streetcars… which were ordered before the platforms were finished.

        1. jeff316

          at 10:16 pm

          Scope creep is not incompetence. But of course, it is easy to re-plan finished projects on the internet with the benefit of hindsight.

          1. AsianSensation

            at 2:41 pm

            Public sector ‘scope creep’ is nothing more than bribes and kickbacks.

          2. Bojangles

            at 12:06 pm

            Wrong. This was pure incompetence. St. Clair is an utter disaster.

            Streetcar lanes dont work. In fact, streetcars are an utter disaster.

        2. Joe Q.

          at 1:59 pm

          For people who live in the neighbourhood and take transit or walk on St Clair, it’s a lot more appealing now than it was before the streetcar lanes were put in. I do concede, though, that St Clair is worse for drivers than it was before.

      2. ScottyP

        at 7:34 pm

        That’s a little harsh, jeff316. The St. Clair streetcar project was a comedy of errors as it was being built — as anyone following the farce at the time could tell you. Hindsight has nothing to do with it.

    2. mickey more

      at 11:15 pm

      Can you imagine another liberal “engineered” boondoggle?? The Ontario government is insolvent ; they propose to introduce more “transit taxes”. The problem is that the only employment remaining in Ontario are the dalton jobs and employment based on government spending. The productive element is unemployed and practically wiped out in Ontario.I think that the most cost effective solution for the Toronto transit system is to use a street grid system exclusively for city services ; no cars allowed in the grid.

  3. JT

    at 10:20 am

    Many people aren’t aware of this, but there has been a gas tax in place since 2004 specificaly for municipal public transit. The new amount is 5 cents per litre since 2009. Toronto diverts 60% of the funds it receives to operating costs and only 40% to capital projects. The amount diverting to operating costs suspiciously covers wage increases. I am VERY reluctant to hand over more money unless Toronto councilors guarantee their jobs that it will go to expansion and not wage increases.

    1. Joe Q.

      at 12:16 pm

      Is the gas tax revenue really devoted only to public transit? I thought gas tax funds were supposed to be used for infrastructure work in general. Certainly that’s what other municipalities do with it.

      Anyway, while I do agree with you in principle, the sums required for transit expansion are so massive that even big cuts to the TTC’s operating expenses wouldn’t go that far. The 2012 TTC operating expenses were something like $1.4B and subways cost about $300M/km to build in Toronto (higher than many other places — itself cause for concern). Even if they managed to cut 10% from the TTC’s operating expenses, the amount saved would only be enough to built 500 metres of subway. Which is scary.

      1. JT

        at 11:04 am

        This was a federal, provincial, municipal deal from 2004 to provide stable and predictable funding to municipalities for transit, so yes it is for transit. I believe the total amount received is 300million per year. Ttc’s service delivery model is Labour intensive due to the fact that it is widely a bus network. I’m not a transit planner or an engineer but it makes sense me that this needs to change to heavy infrastructure investments and lower operating costs. Unfortunately this will not work due to union issues. Even with LRT plans I did not see evidence the operational plan would change, but in theory the trains were to replace a certain number of buses on the road. I believe the extra operators would be shifted to ticket collecting duties or promoted to guy with clipboard (don’t know job title). There were no plans for workforce reduction which is required when moving to a capital intensive organization vs. Labour intensive organization. You cannot have Labour & capital intensive which is what they are asking for. Sorry this is too long.

        1. jeff316

          at 10:13 pm

          No, the 2004 agreement for gas tax revenue sharing is not transit specific. It applies to all municipal infrastructure, energy, transit, waste, water, wastewater, etc.

          1. Joe Q.

            at 3:54 pm

            This is what I thought, too — I seem to remember reading recently that gas tax revenue is being used for improvements to Highway 7.

            In any case, revenue tools like this can be lop-sided — e.g. the City of Toronto has a little over double the population of York Region, but annual ridership on the TTC is more than 20 times that of YRT and VIVA.

  4. JC

    at 11:54 am

    The more you travel outside of Canada, the more of a joke Toronto, it’s lack of planning, and public transportation seem.
    I just came back from a trip to Eastern Europe and Vienna. Everywhere you look there are buildings from the 1400-1500’s still standing and being used. Here in Canada, you have buildings less than 10 years old leaking and needing repair. Wait another 10 years and watch the fun as all these glass monster condos start needing new envelopes.

    The lot where the Wellspring/Odette House on Wellesley E. used to stand is now for sale. (the sign went missing yesterday… not sure what that means) Buy a piece of land, destroy a beautiful historic building, leave an empty lot for a year or two and then try selling it for a profit.

    Then there’s the TTC. A joke. Why is it a city like Vienna, hundreds of years older than Toronto, has dedicated streetcar lanes, but no one had the foresight to do that here? Streetcars as they are now cause congestion. Tokyo seems to add a new subway line every couple of years. They PLAN and find the money somehow to build. The result is an excellent quality of life because the infrastructure is growing as well. Not here in good ol’ Toronto.

    1. ScottyP

      at 7:28 pm

      What JC said.

  5. Joe Q.

    at 11:59 am

    Toronto City Council may lack vision and foresight, but when it comes to explaining why so little new transit has been built in the GTA in recent decades, they’re not the only ones to blame — the capital money, after all, comes mostly from Queens Park and Ottawa (who, unlike Toronto, have tools other than property and land-transfer taxes to raise revenue). If the provincial and federal governments aren’t interested, nothing will happen.

    That said, bickering at the municipal level is hardly helpful when it comes to getting buy-in from other levels of government, as the events of the last few years have shown. And when politics gets involved, anything can happen — witness the fate of the “original” Eglinton subway line after the 1995 election.

    1. jeff316

      at 10:26 pm

      Bingo. I have to say I’m surprised that David, who is usually pretty good on municipal issues, falls into the trough that is the hoary old ‘no vision’ or ‘no leadership’ – the sort of meaningless pap that the politicians he is critiquing usually fall back on when they have no substantive solutions to the problem at hand.

      It’s the opposite. Vision’s the easy stuff. Anyone can have vision. That’s why students write papers on a topic, and move on to the next one. Negotiation, tact, discipline, organization, give and take, accommodation, compromise, management is the tough stuff. Finding ways to kick the stone forward is always harder than telling someone else where the stone should go.

      He misses the point that you make above; that Toronto is caught as the service provider without the tools to fund expansion. Like a kid told to earn his keep moving laws for the summer but his mom handles the money and his dad controls the mower.

      Toronto politicians aren’t perfect, but there’s not much the city can do when it’s at the whims of the two levels of government that control not only the purse strings, but the arm-strings as well.

  6. AndyB

    at 12:13 pm


    I’m willing to bet that those cities function well with a subway because Europe is stiff on taxes toward cars, and cars are just too expensive to own. Couple that with very old cities that are already dense and it makes sense for them to have great transportation. Toronto is actually a pretty young city, which is sad because we could have planned for proper transportation systems from the get go.

    Take a city like London for example. London is a very expensive city to live in, and also drive and own a car in, due to heavy taxation and only allowing ULEV, quiet vehicles into the inner city core. It makes no sense to own a car there. Here however in Toronto and Ontario in general, are the masters of urban sprawl and cars are generally affordable so transportation was a second thought. My issue is that they are creating these dense urban centres, such as Yonge and Eglinton, but not increasing the infrastructure to support all of the new occupants in these centres. The subways need to branch out, etc. I for one, am all for fare increases, IF it means expanded and better service and a future of bringing the subway to new places.

    Kipling for example, should extend out into Mississauga City Centre. I’m happy that the Spadina line is extending into Vaughan. Having these types of systems in supplement with systems like the GO, will discourage car use for going into the city. However, there will ALWAYS be people who could care less about saving money, reducing traffic, etc, and will want to drive to work into the downtown core no matter how economically stupid it is.

    1. Joe Q.

      at 12:25 pm

      These are some good points. I just looked up the cost of gasoline in Vienna — it’s 1.46 Euros per L, which works out to about $1.95 / L in Canadian funds, about 50% more than we pay.

      As for young cities — Toronto may have missed the boat on developing transit infrastructure, but that’s because it didn’t need to when it started really growing. London, Paris, and even NYC got big in the era before the personal automobile — Toronto did so much later. London had a bigger population in the 1920s than the GTA does today.

      1. jeff316

        at 10:07 pm

        Your last paragraph is an excellent point that is too often overlooked.

  7. Dave

    at 5:28 pm

    Under Miller construction began on the York University expansion. New updated streetcars were procured. And Transit City which will result in the Eglinton Crosstown and other lines was launched and funded….. It’s not enough, but it’s certainly more than Ford can speak of.

    1. jeff316

      at 10:45 pm

      Exactly. Miller had a lot of faults, but getting stuff done on transit wasn’t one of them.

      Our current mayor thinks it is a victory that he could get a vote to go his way on a hamburger joint.

      The last mayor found a way to get a city-wide transit plan fully funded by a completely different level of government.

      Whether or not one likes all the components of that plan, getting the province to pay for the whole of Transit City is an insane achievement. Who is the last mayor to do that?

      (Miller’s folly was to squander his political capital on garbage strike that shook his confidence that he could win again, instead of consolidating for a third term to see his vision through.)

      1. david davis

        at 5:39 pm

        Miller bought 1 Billion worth of streetcars without any plan to pay for them then abandoned the City. Anyone can do that – even Ford, but he’s smarter than that.

        1. AsianSensation

          at 2:35 pm

          Miller was a union pawn and buried the city in debt. Great legacy!

        2. David

          at 1:45 pm

          The Streetcars are funded. The federal government tried to screw us and backed out of promised funding, but in the end they also want credit since we are using gas tax money. Turns out even the Neo-Cons in Ottawa think new streetcars are a good idea for the city….

          Thanks Miller! (Still waiting for Ford’s monorail to the Portlands….)

          1. Geoff

            at 10:30 am

            Wasn’t Miller in office longer than Ford so far? So comparing what Miller did to what Ford did isn’t relevant. What matters is that as far as I can tell, what miller did has had no effect on the daily commute.

            I just returned from London, and they have a transit system. Europeans must come here and laugh at us.

  8. B Chang

    at 10:35 am

    I can’t believe anyone still wants to defend the StClair fiasco. From planning, execution, budgeting, schedule, it managed to fail every single yardstick we can imagine. Now after the fact, someone pops up and say: ” see, it’s not so bad. it’s great now”.

    That’s really something.

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