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Tory's Toronto

Metro's Matt Elliott, formerly of Ford For Toronto, keeps the light shining on Mayor John Tory's city hall.

Ontario's budget shouldn't pass up golden opportunity on transit

Kathleen Wynne shouldn't leave much-needed money on the table.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, right, and Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne disembark from a train before making a policy announcement at GO Transit's Willowbrook Rail Maintenance Facility in Toronto on Friday, March 31, 2017.

Staff/The Canadian Press

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, right, and Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne disembark from a train before making a policy announcement at GO Transit's Willowbrook Rail Maintenance Facility in Toronto on Friday, March 31, 2017.

There will be a whole bunch of numbers flying around when Premier Kathleen Wynne’s government unveils the provincial budget this Thursday, but here’s one thing transit riders definitely need to know: 40 per cent.

That number represents the devil in the details of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s previously-announced plan to spend $20.1 billion on transit projects in Canadian cities over the next 11 years.

The amount is substantial—we really, really appreciate it, Justin—but it comes with a catch: the feds are only willing to kick in up to 40 per cent of the total cost of new public transit projects.

It’s right there in black-and-white, lurking on page 145 of the federal budget unveiled last month: “funding for new public transit construction and expansion projects will be cost-shared at up to 40 per cent federal funding.”

Which leaves cities like Toronto facing an obvious question: where the hell are they going to find the other 60 per cent?

We’re not talking small potatoes here. Though Toronto’s exact share of the new federal transit money isn’t yet known, Mayor John Tory is expecting somewhere in the neighbourhood of $5 billion. Under the cost-sharing arrangement laid out in Trudeau’s plan, that means the city could need to find a cool $8 billion.

Not money Tory is likely to find under the couch cushions at city hall.

And while I continue to think Tory’s refusal to raise property taxes – keeping them below the GTA average—is a mistake, there’s no realistic scenario where property taxes alone could cover the billions the city needs for transit projects. And recent city attempts to raise more funds through road tolls have been unfairly shot down.

So enter the province, right? Wynne has long talked up transit as a priority. She should be tripping all over herself to commit to also funding a share of these transit projects, ensuring that a healthy amount of the federal funding gets spent right here in Ontario.

Well, maybe not. Staff in Tory’s office are very concerned that that the province might skip out on this golden opportunity – that their budget won’t include substantial new money for transit projects.  

There’s evidence to support their cynicism. Wynne hasn’t had much to say about transit over the last couple of months. Instead, there’s been a lot of talk about lowering Hydro bills, cooling the overheated housing market and their intention to deliver a balanced budget.

Tory’s attempts to prod the Liberals into action on transit haven’t been very successful either. On April 3, the mayor wrote a letter to Finance Minister Charles Sousa, urging the province to fund projects like the Eglinton East LRT, the relief line subway and waterfront transit.

Sousa responded without much enthusiasm, pointing to the province’s past investment in things like the subway extension to Vaughan and the Eglinton Crosstown.

And sure, those are nice, but does anyone who rides Toronto transit every day really think that’s enough?

I’d say no. I’d scream no. Toronto’s transit system remains woefully undersized given the city’s ridership and population.

With a federal partner ready to spend up to 40 per cent, there’s no reason for the province and the city not to make substantial new investments.

There’s money on the table. Don’t leave it there.

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