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Getting Canadians Moving Again

October 18th, 2013 · No Comments

By: Olivia Chow and Joe Cressy

Those of us who live in the city all know the aggravation that can come with unreliable public transit and gridlock.  Being squeezed into an overflowing subway. Watching packed streetcars pass you by as you wait in the cold, already late for work. Sitting in a car in traffic and fighting that temptation to scream.  The reality, for far too many, of not having a fast and reliable source of public transit within walking distance of your home or work.

Let’s face it, while we may like public transit, at times it can be tough. Commuters are increasingly frustrated and business leaders are feeling the negative impact on productivity and competitiveness.

Part of this frustration arises from the fact that travel time directly affects our quality of life. Take for example, commute times. Last year the average commute time in the GTA was over 80 minutes.  Think about how much more time you could spend with your family, enjoy your hobbies, or lead a healthy and active life if it was reduced.

But transit impacts more than just the quality of our lives, it hits us in our pocket books. Gridlock in the GTA last year cost our economy $6 billion. And that’s to say nothing of the negative impacts on our long-term economic prospects.

So, what’s to be done? How can we get our city and country moving again?

In the last year individuals, businesses, civic organizations, and governments have taken the issue on.  Organizations and alliances like the Toronto Region Board of Trade and CivicAction have convened some of the best and brightest to work on solutions. Local campaigns, like our own I HEART Public Transit initiative of the Trinity-Spadina NDP, have sought to build awareness and advocate for change.  Individuals from across our city have spent their evenings in consultations hosted by the City of Toronto and Metrolinx.

This is a good development. There is now an urgent discussion taking place about how to pay for existing and new transit and how to cut commute times. At the municipal and provincial level, debates about the best form of dedicated, transparent, progressive, and fair revenue sources are being held. The search for that elusive consensus on transit funding is on.

All of us who engaged in these discussions know a few simple truths: If we don’t invest in and fix our existing transit infrastructure, gridlock will get worse and commute times will increase.  Our ridership is growing. Simply put, more people are using public transit and more cars are on the roads. And, if we don’t invest in building the next generation of transit, everyone in our city will be worse off.

However, in all of these discussions, one important piece of the puzzle has been missing: the federal government. For years the federal government has been missing in action on public transit.

A couple of simple facts help to make this clear.  Fact–Canada is the only G8 nation without a national transit strategy. Fact – nationally, our public transit system faces an $18 billion gap in the next five years without any commitment from the federal government to fix it. Fact – the economic benefits directly resulting from public transit in Canada are over $10 billion annually.

This needs to change.

Across Canada cities are struggling. They receive only eight cents of every tax dollar and their property taxes have to pay for a wide range of local services, from parks to police to libraries. Recent promised improvements with the gas tax transfer to cities have been an important step, but our cities remain cash-strapped. On transit, they can’t manage alone.

What Canadian cities need is permanent, long-term, and predictable investments in transit. Building and operating transit can’t be done overnight. It requires vision and planning. And it certainly can’t be effectively funded with one-time commitments from the federal government.

On the very weekend we sat down to write this op-ed the news arrived that the federal government would provide $660 million for a subway in Scarborough. Let’s be clear, we need the federal government at the table and the news that they would be funding transit is a step in the right direction. But, they can and must do better.

Municipal and provincial officials in Toronto and across Canada are looking to improve transit and we can’t do that with just ad hoc and one-off commitments from the federal government. We need long-term and predictable funding to make transit investments work.

For years, Torontonians and residents of cities across Canada have needed to get to work and school faster. They’ve been let down. But the recent focus and attention on transit should give us all hope. The time is coming for discussions to make way for action. It’s time to get Canadians moving again.

– Olivia Chow is the member of parliament for Trinity-Spadina, the NDP transport and infrastructure spokesperson, and the vice-chair of parliament’s transport committee.

-Joe Cressy is the president of the Trinity-Spadina federal NDP and one of the co-founders of the I HEART Public Transit campaign.

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