Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Politics: Perks on Transit City

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I attended a community meeting put on by my local Member of Provincial Parliament (MPP) last night. Interestingly, I learned more about what was going on at the federal level than at the provincial level. While I went primarily to find out what my MPP had to say, the event was effectively one for the riding's New Democratic Party (NDP) at all levels, with an aligned city councillor and candidate for federal Member of Parliament in attendance. It was the city councillor, Gord Perks, who I thought stole the show with his presentation on transit.

Perks, who represents Ward 14, which is not my ward but is part of the same provincial and federal riding, has been a supporter of Mayor David Miller's Transit City proposal to bring light rail to many parts of the city currently served by buses. I learned that, at least according to Perks, the areas served by Transit City were chosen in part by identifying the low-income areas that did not have government services (things like employment offices) in their areas. I had thought they were mostly chosen for the purpose of creating a effective grid system based on where demand for transit already exists.

Where Perks really excelled was in rhetorical devices. The proposal by some mayoral candidates to privatize bus service clearly has really rankled Perks. He held up a neck tie, pointing it out as an example of a private-market item that some might call a "frill", and then held up a glass of water, clearly a publicly-delivered service. He asked the question whether transit was more like a neck tie or more like a glass of water, calling for people to treat transit as a fundamental service like water.

The only problem is that, even if one agrees with Perks on that point as I do, there's not a whole lot the city can do about transit funding. The city doesn't have the money to fund transit completely on its own, nor does it have the power to create new taxes or modify tax rates so that it can. All the action is at the provincial level, and the province just halved the money set to be spent on Transit City. While Perks pointed out that if Toronto had the same per-rider subsidy as the VIVA bus system in the adjacent York region that transit here would be free to riders, this statistic is an apples-to-oranges comparison--the whole point of VIVA is to try to drag a transit-unfriendly region into having a more transit-friendly infrastructure, and that obviously requires a big subsidy for a smaller number of riders than a system serving a dense area. Perks himself likes to draw a diagram showing the cost per rider near the center of a city as smaller than in the periphery, which in this case includes the York Region.

Yet, since this problem has to be solved by the province, not the city, it's not hard to understand his frustration. It's the same frustration experienced by every Toronto subway rider who has watched as ridership has grown over the years and the city has had no money to improve service to handle the load. The heat has to be put on the province to either put up money, or allow the city to raise the money itself. The Public Transit Coalition has been founded to do just that. Will it be enough? Time will tell whether transit in Toronto comes to be treated more like a glass of water, or a neck tie.

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