Hamilton councillors divided on transit funding recommendations
The conversation about the future of transit in the Greater Toronto-Hamilton Area (GTHA) got a big shot in the arm this week after the Toronto Region Board of Trade made bold recommendations on how to fund public transportation.
Warning that "traffic congestion and a fraying public transit system represent a major threat to the long-term prosperity and well-being" of the region, the board prescribed a cocktail of tools to raise money to combat "gridlock."
Those measures, which the board of trade said would yield up to $2 billion per year, include a regional gas tax, a one per cent sales tax, a surcharge on parking spaces and tolls for single-occupant vehicles looking to drive in high-occupancy vehicle lanes.
But while the suggestions made waves in the Toronto dailies, they've only caused ripples in Hamilton, even though taxpayers here might be called upon to pony up for the new transit infrastructure.
In November, Metrolinx identified a Hamilton light-rail line that would run east-west roughly along the current B-Line bus route as one of its top-10 priorities for the next 15 years. The provincial agency has yet to announce how the next slate of transit projects willl be bankrolled, but has hinted that municipalities will have to make hefty contributions.
The prospect of imposing new tolls and taxes on Hamiltonians is a non-starter for Stoney Creek councillors Maria Pearson and Brad Clark, whose wards are predominantly surburban.
"[My constituents] would be very angry, they would be strongly opposed to it," said Clark, councillor for Ward 9 and an opponent of the LRT plan.
"The challenge is that insufficient funds have come from the feds to pay for roadways all along. And now that we're looking at an expansion of transit and highways, they're dreaming way over their ability to pay. So they're simply looking for other avenues of revenue instead of saying, 'You know, some of these things we simply can't do.' "
Pearson said that if a tax were implemented in individual municipalities, and not the entire region, consumers would go out of their way to dodge the surcharges, reducing the effectiveness of the tax.
Her constituents, she added, have little appetite for new taxes for transit, even though the planned LRT project would jut into her ward.
"If we were to look at that, I don't think this community would tolerate it at all. A one per cent tax increase? Come on."
Ward 1 councillor Brian McHattie, a proponent of the LRT plan, was more welcoming of the board of trade's recommendations.
"I think they're positive suggestions and they're amongst a group of funding ideas that Metrolinx should bring to the table," he said.
According to McHattie, building new public transit is essential to the health of the region, it would help to relieve crippling traffic congestion in and around Toronto, and would rev up economic development in Hamilton's lower city.
In addition, he said the province should "enact this on their own" and impose measures across the GTHA to avoid a patchwork of tolls and taxes across the region, as well as make sure each municipality gets its fair share of transit dollars.
Though the debate over how to fund transit divide may Hamiltonians in predictable ways — pitting downtowners and urbanists against more car-dependent suburb dwellers — funding new public transportation projects can benefit transit users and motorists alike, said Ryan McGreal, editor of the citizen blog Raise the Hammer and a vocal pro-LRT advocate.
Highway tolls, he pointed out, while raising money for new infrastructure, would encourage carpooling and transit use, freeing up road space for people who need to drive.
"If you price it right, you would notice immediate, significant and sustainable reduction in traffic volumes," said McGreal, citing road-pricing initiatives in Scandinavia.
Though he was happy to hear the board of trade, an ardently pro-business group, publicly stress the need for new transit, he's still weighing the merits of each revenue tool that's been floated.
"We can't afford going on our visceral reactions," said McGreal, who admonished councillors to approach the debate with an open mind.
"We have to be very careful in our decision-making on this thing."