I just finished reading Jeff Rubin's recent book Why Your World Is About to Get a Whole Lot Smaller -- it was a well written but alarming read.
The impact of "triple-digit oil prices" is real and will transform the global economy as we factor in the pass through costs across various industries and geographies. It also got me thinking closer to home and about our monumental infrastructure challenges in Toronto. Since the mid-' 90s I have been hearing about, and have even participated in discussions around, bold plans for Toronto's waterfront and other major transformational initiatives for the city. They always seem to get shelved or delayed for the same reasons -- there's no funding, new environmental study required, or there's one level of government pointing to another as the unwilling partner. There are thousands of commuters pouring into the city every day, and I suspect many of them would vie for public transit if it were accessible, reliable and seamless. Try getting from Mississauga to Markam on a single fare.
I am as guilty as the next person and sometimes choose the car when public transit might be cheaper and quicker -- yet with all the construction under way in the city right now, seemingly all at the same time I might add, driving is certainly no easy pill to swallow either. It is also tough to miss the hundreds of cranes across the city's skyline -- tangible evidence that this city will soon be even more crowded. I certainly hope we are charging commensurate density taxes on developers to help fund the infrastructure costs required to serve these new urban dwellers. If we are trying to wean people off cars and onto bikes or public transit, our plan needs to include a system that handles the additional demands, instead of playing politics with the city's transit strategy.
The transportation issue is not Toronto's alone -- there have been debates over building a 21st-century rail system between Quebec and Windsor since the 1970s. It would span over 1,100 km and serve over 11 million people, but we still have not had the political fortitude to move this forward. Infrastructure spending does cost money -- lots of it -- but the economic benefits over time surely outweigh the cost. Are we going to wait for yet another generation of politicians to kick this issue down the road? Imagine relief on our roads if a viable efficient high-speed rail system existed.
I know it is tough to sell the public on the long-term benefits of projects that will span decades, especially when we are trained to expect instant gratification from almost everything these days, but I fear there are more painful days ahead. We are going to need to seriously consider a congestion tax to help absorb the heavy costs of increased density. We will need other incentives to move people into smaller, more fuel efficient cars. Just imagine the impact of these simultaneous initiatives -- upgrading/expanding our transit system while erecting 40-story structures at every main intersection in the city. Sometime I wonder if there is even a city planning strategy. We block off major city streets to construct new condominiums, but we forget that the alternate routes are already blocked off for some other reason. We encounter miles of construction, but often there is no work being done. We should be demanding fixed-price and fixed-time contracts, with financial penalties for even the slightest overruns. You think traffic is painful today, just wait -- we haven't even touched on other essential services like schools, hospitals, garbage collection, water, and many more.
For many people, municipal governments have the most direct day-to-day impact on their lives. Bold actions are being taken in other cities (i.e Chicago) where every service provided by the government is measured against the value to the "customer." If Toronto wants to remain a first class city, let's make it attractive to live here, to work here and to visit here. As Toronto City Council debates its 2012 budget in the coming weeks, it would do well to remember the customer.