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It’s a money train

Transit City’s a fast track to boom, not a ticket to budget doom
By Andrew Cash

Watching Mayor David Miller pumping the crowd in the packed council chambers at the Wednesday, April 21, Save Transit City rally is bittersweet. Have we ever had a more substantive transit visionary in the mayor’s chair? Don’t think so.

My mind wanders as I feel the temperature rising in the sterile seat of city power. It took Tommy Douglas four terms to bring universal medicare to Saskatchewan. So it sounds about right that it would take three terms to bring a megaproject like Transit City to fruition.

Well, Miller isn’t heading for a third term, and I can’t help but feel, as the applause dies down, that we are seeing his official transformation from strong mayor to lame duck. And Dalton McGuinty is loving it.

Until now, Miller has been, it seems, the sole voice for Toronto both at Queen’s Park and in the House of Commons – doing the job of the mostly Liberal MPPs and MPs who’d rather run for cover than stand up for the city they were elected to represent.

And while he and McGuinty tangoed their way toward progressive consensus on a number of fronts, the dance is over and the gloves are now off. Why give Transit City to Miller when it can be delayed – and then saved – by former deputy premier and mayoral front-runner George Smitherman? Just a thought.

The delay of $4 billion certainly doesn’t make sense from the fiscal point of view. The province says the cupboard is bare, but by most economic models, spending on surface rail transit is a net win for the books.

“The province stands to get most of its investment back on income and sales tax alone,” says Miller policy adviser Brendan Agnew-Iler, referring to the thousands of new jobs in construction, manufacturing (if the trains are built in Ontario),  accounting, architecture, engineering, etc entailed by Transit City. Indeed, a 2008 study done for the Federation of Canadian Municipalities found that a $1 billion infrastructure investment grows the economy by $1.3 billion.

While this model is based on a national infrastructure investment, which would have less “import leakage” (purchases outside the area of direct investment) than a provincial or municipal project, report author Carl Sonnen tells me that “as a macroeconomic impact multiplier, the FCM study is a reasonable approximation [of the effects of Transit City], assuming the trains will be built in Ontario.”

Economic spinoff arguments for transit can be complex. If people use their cars less, for example, they may have more cash to spend on clothes or theatre tickets, but there might be less work for those doing car and road repairs.

Still, the boosts are well studied and tangible: a rise in property values along the route of new transit, expansion of retail, particularly near surface rail, and spinoffs in manufacturing. “We now have enough experience with LRT in North America to know that the economics are no longer a question mark,” says Greg Gormick, contributing editor to transit trade mag Railway Age. “We have seen spectacular results in terms of regeneration and redevelopment of neighbourhoods.”

So if that’s the promise of building Transit City, what’s the flip side if we don’t complete it? More social dislocation in the suburbs and less equity in a city where poverty is racialized and located around the outer edges.

“We will have another generation growing up in poverty,” says Roger Keil, director of the City Institute at York University. “The racialization of poverty is not a snapshot; it’s a slow and grinding film.”

MPP Glen Murray agrees, sort of. “Transit City gets an A-plus for social inclusion,” he says.

The Toronto Centre rep is the sole Liberal to show up in the council chambers Wednesday night, and after the meeting a spontaneous mini-debate erupts between him and Toronto Environmental Alliance’s Franz Hartmann. Murray repeats the mantra about controlling the deficit. “There’s a wall there,” he says.

But on the phone a few nights later, he says of the plan, “Transit City falls short in ensuring that these lines connect to the major employment clusters.”

So it needs a rethink, then? “No, we will build Transit City, but we actually need to be thinking beyond this plan, because, quite frankly, to be a transit-centred city and region will cost more than what we’ve budgeted for Transit City.”

Probably, but first things first. That delay (or “cut” as activists suspect) will be pricey. Rosemarie Powell of the Jane/Finch Community and Family Centre is worried about the social tally when locals need to “spend hours and take multiple buses to get anywhere. Transit City needs to happen quickly because it will cost more down the road.”

Even if Smitherman plays the progressive card to get the plan back on the rails, says Keil, the genie is out of the bottle. “Public transit is under such a barrage of criticism right now that it may be difficult to defend Transit City in the mayoral election. This is an incredible position to be in.”

It’s all pretty ominous, says John Cartwright, president of the Labour Council. “I think once the province  gets back to it, it will be a significantly different Transit City. Also, Metrolinx wants to explore public-private partnerships every step of the way, so we will be seeing increasing pressure to privatize significant portions of our transit system.”

BILLION-DOLLAR DOMINO

  • Every $1 billion invested in transit creates 36,000 jobs.
  • Every $1 billion of infrastructure investment grows the economy by $1.3 billion.

Economic Impact Of Public Transportation Investment, by the American Public Transportation Association

Infrastructure And The Economy, a study by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities

Andrew Cash is the federal NDP candidate for Davenport.

news@nowtoronto.com

NOW | April 29-May 6, 2010 | VOL 29 NO 35

As published here: http://www.nowtoronto.com/news/story.cfm?content=174785

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