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GREENINGS: Driving fuelled by unseen subsidies (Jan. 2018)

January 29th, 2018 · No Comments

Invest in transit and public works, not roads and parking

If all goes according to plan — and with the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) it never does — Torontonians should enjoy time-based transfers starting in August. It’s great news for transit users but critics — who claim it’s an unfair subsidy — are livid.

“How about transit users paying their fair share?” said one vocal naysayer on my ever-burdensome Facebook feed.

It struck me as an impressive level of cherry-picking data for him to come to the conclusion that transit is being unfairly subsidized at the expense of cars.

I will argue any day that cars benefit from a far greater subsidy than transit.

Road maintenance

A 2013 study showed that drivers pay between 70 to 90 per cent of a $7.5 billion provincial road maintenance bill. This leaves between $750 million and $2.25 billion, which is funded from general tax revenue.

By comparison, the TTC, the province’s largest city transit operator, got a whopping $411 million in 2013. Just last month, a paltry $11 million funding announcement for Brampton’s transit system was photo-op worthy. Even on the low end of the estimate, transit users don’t get the kind of subsidies that drivers do out of general tax revenue.

Opportunity cost

Giving space to cars is often seen as an “investment” and “economic driver” that pedestrians, cyclists, and transit users don’t enjoy. The City of Toronto owns about 160 parking lots containing roughly 20,000 spaces. The lot between Lippincott and Borden streets just south of Bloor Street has 144 spots and takes up almost 37,000 square feet of surface area. This lot charges $4 per hour to park a car there.

The city is essentially sitting on land and subsidizing drivers to park. This land could be put to much more productive uses that generate far greater amounts of revenue for the city. Between Bathurst Street and Spadina Avenue, the going rate for ground floor retail is approximately $75 per square foot per year.

According to the Greater Toronto Transportation Authority (or Metrolinx), each off-street space generates roughly $1,000 of net revenue annually, which amounts to slightly under $4 per square foot per year. The city is getting a tiny fraction of the real value of the land by leaving it to languish as a surface lot. This is a massive subsidy for drivers. If arguing against the time transfer is about fiscal responsibility, I demand that the city make better use of these land resources. It’s called responsible asset management.

The city could develop these properties, bringing in a steady stream of revenue, or sell it off to developers for a one-time windfall. Either way, it is worth a lot more than the $4 per hour each parking spot currently generates.

One might argue that this is about promoting businesses, but so is the timed transfer. How much more money would people spend if they could pop out at any station, pick up what they’re looking for, and pop back in for free? There have been many trips I don’t make because paying another fare is just enough of an inhibitor.

“I can do it another day” I tell myself. Meanwhile I don’t spend the money I would have spent.

Viewing subsidized parking as the way of the world and a timed transfer as an unfair subsidy is simply hypocrisy of the highest order.

Investing in transit

We have finally turned a page where transit is getting decent infrastructure investment. For four decades, the Greater Toronto Area has seen one road-widening project after another with limited investment in transit. Now that car manufacturers no longer wield the political influence they once did (i.e. they don’t write cheques nearly as big as they used to), we have woken up and see the light.

Widening roads has gotten us nowhere. A friend who worked at the University of Toronto recently retired. She bought a house in Richmond Hill early in her career. It took her 20 minutes to hit campus every morning and she was quite happy with the commute. Fast forward to her retirement, it takes over an hour to get to campus and the roads have more lanes than when she bought her home.

We now know that roads and cars are an inefficient means of transportation. It was, and continues to be, a highly profitable one for manufacturers and oil companies, but they should no longer be writing our policy books. Multi-car families have created urban planning disasters that will take decades to recover from. There are neighbourhoods where one can’t even access a community centre without hopping into a vehicle.

It’s time to start looking at car costs as “subsidies” and transit costs as “investment”.

Terri Chu is an engineer committed to practical environmentalism. This column is dedicated to helping the community reduce energy, and help distinguish environmental truths from myths.

Tags: Annex · Life · Opinion