On Tuesday, January 10, the 2023 city budget was released, which lays out the year’s spending on everything from bike lanes to sewers. While this budget is bigger than ever before, it’s missing vital support to meet the growing climate, affordability, housing, transit, food security, and other big challenges that we face today.
It’s also the first year where the city’s budget is largely controlled by the Mayor, giving him special powers to introduce his own budget and veto any aspects he doesn’t like. We’re still learning more about how the Strong Mayor powers will play out, but here is our initial take on what’s missing, what’s there, and what has us scratching our heads in the budget materials released so far.
Takeaway #1: This budget still doesn’t match the scale of the Climate Emergency
Despite voting in favour of ambitious plans to fight climate change and reach net zero emissions by 2040, the Mayor and Council still haven’t outlined how to fund these plans anywhere close to the necessary scale. There are promising programs to retrofit social housing buildings, add renewable energy to city buildings, expand Bike Share programs and more - but we need to see these programs grow exponentially to meet Council’s climate promises.
Here are a few key numbers:
A City briefing document tells us that they’re planning to spend about $2B in “climate-related” capital projects in 2023. But in order to meet the city’s Net Zero by 2040 goal, the city’s climate plan estimates that they'll need to invest an average of over $8B per year. This is a massive amount of money and a huge gap between commitment and action - and every year of delay makes it astronomically worse.
Climate action is just one of many critical areas facing budget cuts and shortfalls this year. But despite these big gaps, the budget does not propose any new targeted revenue or funding tools (besides a property tax increase). Instead, the budget looks for over a billion dollars in unconfirmed help from the provincial and federal governments. We’d like to see these asks come with some strong proposals for City-led revenue tools which can fund big underfunded priorities like affordable housing, climate and transit.
Takeaway #2: Transit - a critical part of the City’s climate plan - is taking a big hit
Toronto’s Net Zero Climate Strategy hinges on transit expanding, improving, and becoming free before 2040. But the proposed TTC budget cuts service by 9% from pre-pandemic levels while increasing fares. This moves us in the opposite direction from Council’s climate commitments, and does nothing to help make transit more affordable for the people who depend on it every day.
TEA is calling for a reversal of the proposed TTC cuts, and a staff report investigating how the city could use a commercial parking levy to fund future transit and climate change solutions. City reports show evidence that this tool could raise up to $575M per year - a huge amount for a single revenue tool. Instead of leaving this tool on the table in the middle of a massive budget crunch, let’s investigate it so this doesn’t happen again in future years.
Takeaway #3: The transportation budget is still putting more cars on the road
Toronto’s Net Zero strategy calls for 75% of all transportation 5km or less to be pedestrian, by bike, or by transit by 2030. That can’t happen if the city continues to prioritize cars above all other ways to get around. Cities like New York and Paris are removing car traffic and parking spots in favour of cheaper pedestrians and cycling infrastructure. But Toronto’s 2023 budget shows that the capital cost just to maintain the Gardiner Expressway is an astounding $2 billion, which will put more cars on the road as well as sucking much-needed capital dollars from the city. The City needs to invest a more equitable amount into the city’s transit expansion, cycling network plan, and Vision Zero Safety Plan, and at the very least keep cycling expansion programs fully funded. In happier transportation news, Bikeshare is seeing a 21% ridership increase again this year, and getting some capital expansion dollars to get more bikes and stations across the city - more of this please!
Takeaway #4: Building retrofits need to be scaled up more quickly, particularly those that increase the amount of affordable housing
Almost 60% of the city’s emissions come from buildings. And while new buildings are more likely to be energy and emissions efficient, most of Toronto’s buildings are older. According to the city’s Net Zero Technical Report, Toronto needs to retrofit an average of over 29,000 residences and buildings every year. To achieve this target, existing programs need far more funding support.
There is big potential to bring together housing, affordability, and climate goals by scaling up investments in projects that green buildings and increase the number of safe and deeply affordable housing units, including the City’s Multi-Unit Residential Acquisition (MURA) Program and High-Rise Retrofit Improvement Support (Hi-RIS) Program. We recommend ramping up funding to these programs first to do double duty in addressing the housing and climate crisis at once.
Takeaway #5: Climate Resilience means stable housing and emergency support (and yes, trees)
Toronto is experiencing more extreme heatwaves, more intense storms and flooding, and this puts people’s health and wellbeing at risk.
While it’s good to see mention of resilience projects for flood protection and erosion control in the budget, there still seems to be no clear plan to fund the measures in Toronto’s Resilience Strategy, or deliver programs to support critical emergency heat response measures, or support residents through escalating storms and extreme weather. By 2040-2050, Toronto is expected to have 66 days over 30 degrees each summer - essentially, one long heatwave. Residents without stable housing, or even without air conditioning, will need much greater support to stay safe. Toronto needs to increase funding for programs which help provide stable housing and designated shelter beds, particularly during extreme heat or cold.
Green spaces also provide critical spaces for respite for the many Torontonians in extreme weather. Parks, ravines, and trees provide shade, manage stormwater runoff, reduce the urban heat island effect, and provide shelter for many unhoused people faced with few options. There’s some good news in that this budget includes funding to extend the season for park washrooms and drinking fountains, but we’d like to see them all winterized and made accessible.
Budgets are being cut for the Ravine Strategy ($99M) and tree maintenance ($0.5M), while fewer trees are expected to be planted this year – all putting the increase from 30% to a 40% tree canopy target at risk. This is a problem when, as the budget notes says, 13% of Torontonians still do not live within walking distance of a park, and that ‘not all neighbourhoods enjoy equitable access to the benefits of trees’. We’re going to need a lot more shade as Toronto gets hotter - let’s find the money to plant more trees now!
Takeaway #6: Not enough funding to meet waste and circular economy goals
The City’s zero waste and circular economy commitments will help prevent pollution, and create local jobs, and meet climate goals. Unfortunately, recycling and organics diversion rates are declining, and there’s no clear plan to achieve the 100% organics diversion called for in the Net Zero by 2040 plan. To improve diversion, the education budget should be increasing (it was slashed a few years back when the printed waste calendar was cancelled), and there will need to be more outreach and support for businesses and residents to shift away from disposables and towards low-cost reusables to meet the forthcoming City and federal regulations, and single-use take out items.
In good news, Renewable Natural Gas is now being collected and used from one of the City’s organics Facilities, with the second online by the end of 2023. The much-needed third organics facility to manage organics and create green energy won’t be online until 2028 - we’d like to see this move faster and have more impact sooner.
What can you do to find out more and take action?
TEA will be releasing tools to take action, more analysis and key recommendations in the coming weeks so stay tuned! Another great resource is Social Planning Toronto’s City Budget Watch blog, which you can follow for general updates.
You can share your thoughts with City Councillors at upcoming Budget meetings by signing up to depute on January 17th or 18th. Head to this link to find out more about how to sign up!