I just saw John Tory interviewed live on CablePulse 24; he did quite well. I’ve said it before, his election as leader of the province’s Progressive Conservatives is good for Ontario, and good for McGuinty, as it should (I hope) keep the government on its toes. The man’s intelligent and pragmatic, which is a refreshing change from the neo-Conservative zealots that made the Mike Harris government so painful. I’m almost sorry to see that Tory has the albatross of the Harris and Eve legacy around his neck; when he talks about the need to reinvest in the infrastructure of our cities like Toronto, I cannot help but say that it was his predecessors whose policies made the need for reinvestment so very desperate in the first place.
Anyway, after listening to Tory speak, I went to his website and sent him an e-mail. This is what I said:
Dear Mr. Tory,
I’m just watching your live appearance on CablePulse 24, and I was impressed by what you said, especially when you differentiated between running the province like a business and running it in a business-like way. Too many Conservatives mix these items up, taking services away from people who need them in their drive to eliminate government “waste”. I also appreciated your comment on the need to invest money on new infrastructure, including subways. Even though I live in Kitchener, I know that the province as a whole will operate better if the engine of Toronto isn’t strangled. To keep that engine moving, the city needs more transit.
I would caution you against relying just on subways in order to provide this relief. As transit activist Steve Munro notes (http://www.stevemunro.ca/), subways are hugely expensive, and may have far more capacity than what is needed at the moment. Surface LRT networks throughout the GTA may provide the mobility required, at a fraction of a cost of new subway construction. I hope you will consider that, and press the Liberals on that.
My greatest concern about your comments, however, is that you did not mention the considerable costs required to maintain the infrastructure that already exists. All transit agencies appreciate the contribution to new equipment, but leaving the cities alone to handle the cost of maintaining and replacing that equipment puts a considerable burden on property taxpayers. Nowhere is this more true than in Toronto itself.
The TTC has a considerable budget shortfall in terms of maintaining the system it has in a state of good repair, and it is irresponsible to invest in new infrastructure when the infrastructure that exists cannot continue to carry the people it does. So I have to ask: will you commit to funding transit agencies like the TTC so that it can maintain its state of good repair, and will you push the McGuinty Liberals to do this?
So, the Ontario budget has come and gone. What are my thoughts?
I think it’s very like the McGuinty government, full of the sort of benign mediocrity that characterizes this administration. Still substantially better than the days of Ernie Eves, and maybe enough to keep the party in power for at least another four years, but far short of what one hopes for.
I appreciated a number of the initiatives, including the 2% increase in welfare benefits, the investment in research and education, and the billions to renew public transit and road infrastructure across the province. The budget loses a lot of points for being shamelessly political with the province’s fiscal health, however. A number of these spending initiatives were put into place to keep the province in deficit, despite an unexpected windfall of corporate tax revenues that could have balanced the budget. I would have balanced the budget and raised my hands in victory right now, but McGuinty wants to do this in 2007, when he can take this evidence of sound fiscal management into the next provincial election.
Case in point, is the more than $600 million the province earmarked to extend the York University subway. Because they complicated the process by funding the extension to Highway 7 instead of Steeles Avenue, shovels won’t be in the ground for years. And rather than just promise the money and sit on the funds, they “spent” it instead by pulling it aside into a trust fund that will be ready once Toronto and York pony up 33% of the funds. I’ll give them credit for this extra assurance that the money will be sent, rather than just announced and quietly shuffled back into provincial coffers, but this money counts against the deficit as an accounting trick.
I am conflicted about this subway extension. I am a transit fan, and theoretically I love the idea of any sort of subway expansion, but I am uncertain whether this particular project is the best use of our tax dollars. The City of Toronto is still struggling to maintain the TTC in a state of good repair, and a number of other important projects need funding, like replacing the Scarborough RT. The money the province has earmarked could build a number of LRT lines that could carry more people than are expected to ride the subway to York University. Then there is the fact that the city has already committed to building a bus-only road to York University, which can handle the present crowds and those expected to arrive in the future. Unfortunately, I suspect the province favours subway expansion over LRT lines, bus-only roads and replacing aging infrastructure because new subways provide more political bang for the buck. The extension into Vaughan also shores up the Liberals’ vote in Toronto’s outer suburbs.
The city of Toronto is slowly getting the funds it needs to undo the damage done to it during the Harris and Eves years, but there’s little in the way of leadership in these move. It’s all disturbingly tenuous and ad hoc. It would be nice if somebody could step forward to take bolder, less partisan steps towards securing the future.