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Municipal Election 2014

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Olivia Chow promises “up to a billion dollars” for transit in Toronto

Olivia Chow at a transit-related press conference on March 20. (Image: CP24/Screenshot)

Olivia Chow at a transit-related press conference on March 20. (Image: CP24/Screenshot)

At the Toronto Region Board of Trade this afternoon, Olivia Chow unveiled her transit-investment strategy in front of a packed room. There was nothing exciting or unexpected in her speech, but, in a weird way, that’s exactly what was remarkable about it.

As she has before, she pointed out that big-ticket transit projects—particularly the downtown relief line, the cost of which has been estimated at $8 billion—probably aren’t achievable without some buy-in from higher orders of government. “I’d say to Queen’s Park and Ottawa that they get 92 cents per tax dollar our city generates in taxes,” she said. “We only get eight. So we need to address that imbalance. Our city can’t do it alone.”

She also pledged to contribute up to $1 billion of the city’s own money to transit expansion. It would be the same $1 billion currently earmarked for the Scarborough subway extension, which Chow would cancel in favour in cheaper light rail, as planned prior to last summer’s dramatic reversal.

Crucially, Chow also suggested that some of the $1 billion would be used for upkeep on Toronto’s existing transit infrastructure. No other candidate has engaged seriously with the notion of providing better funding for the transit the city already has. The announcement dovetails with her earlier promise to increase rush-hour bus capacity by 10 per cent.

There was nothing in the announcement to head off the John Tory campaign’s favourite attack line (“the only thing we know is she won’t get the relief line done until 2031”), but it was, at least, realistic. The relief line’s cost and complexity make it an extremely uncertain proposition. It will be interesting to see whether and how subway-hawk candidates like Tory and Karen Stintz come to grips with that reality.

Stintz is off to a shaky start. Her own transit-funding strategy, released earlier today in an apparent attempt to gobble up some of Chow’s headlines, proposes reallocating more than $1.6 billion worth of existing assets and funding. [CORRECTION: Actually, $114 million of that amount would be new revenue from a proposed $3 parking levy at some Green P garages.] “My funding plan will ensure that we fully fund Toronto’s share of the Toronto Relief Line without raising property taxes,” the press release says.

What Stintz’s plan doesn’t explain is how the city will go about replacing all that reallocated money once it has been spent on the transit project of the day. She’s essentially promising Torontonians a free subway. There’s no such thing, of course—but this city has fallen for that line before, and may again.

 

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