Why the Public Transit Debate Is Misguided

06/11/2013 12:05 EDT | Updated 08/11/2013 05:12 EDT

On the editorial pages of Toronto's newspapers, there is a great debate about how to pay for the public transit expansion Toronto and the Toronto region desperately needs. The commentary is ernest, debating the merits of tolls, sales taxes and other so-called revenue tools. But I think the debate is misguided and this is the most important issue facing the Toronto region today, which is actually building transit with the money that has already been allocated.

I drew an important lesson in this regard from the experience of Mayor Ken Livingstone in London, England. Mayor Livingston introduced an incredibly unpopular congestion charge, charging everyone who entered the core of the City of London a fee. He rode out the unpopularity and the congestion fee, fairly quickly, became well regarded and popular. Why? Because it worked. Ken Livingstone's congestion charge worked for a very simple reason. He put the plans in place beforehand for the expanded rapid transit that gave people a real choice -- to pay the congestion charge or to take transit. In his case the rapid transit was by bus running in reserved right-of-way's, given that London already has an excellent transit system.

Contrast this to Toronto where we have a 30-year history of starting and stopping projects. The Sheppard LRT, for example, was under construction in 2009 and was stopped by the City and Province in 2011. Council voted to re-start the project in 2012 but, for idealogical and control reasons, the Province of Ontario decided to take over the project and redo the procurement as a public-private partnership. This means that the Sheppard LRT, which commenced construction in 2009, will re-commence construction in approximately 2017. As it takes about four years to build, it could have been built twice in this time, not to mention the tens of millions of dollars of engineering work done by the TTC that has literally been thrown away.

If we are to draw lessons from the London experience, it's not about the method of revenue tool -- it's about the fact that people need to see the rapid transit being built and need to be able to use it in order for them to accept the idea of paying more. I know people will pay more. In 2006 I ran on a platform of building a great city by increasing taxes and raising new revenues through the City of Toronto Act, and I received nearly 60 per cent of the vote. People will be prepared for different methods of raising revenue - land value capture, tolls, sales and parking taxes are possibilities, but ONLY if we can build the transit and show them that it works. With $8 billion already allocated it's enough to build the Finch, Sheppard and Eglinton LRTs. My advice to the Premier: expedite all of that, get the shovels in the ground and then ask people to pay a little more. You will be much more likely to succeed.