It’s Time to Move our Transportation
Regional transportation has become the issue across the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA). Parts of the Big Move, Metrolinx’s 25-year, $50 billion regional transportation plan, are funded and under construction, including the air-rail link to Pearson, investments in the York Region Viva system, and new LRT’s in Toronto. To fund the remaining projects, the regional transport agency is preparing to submit an investment strategy to the Provincial Government by June, which will propose new taxes or funding tools. As that crucial deadline approaches, some major questions remain: how aware are the region’s residents about the Big Move and the funding options under consideration? Would they support new taxes?
These are crucial questions. With an uncertain political landscape and a reticence to raise taxes, public attitudes will be critical in political calculations about whether the conditions are right for action.
While our woeful congestion and transit issues are all over the news, the GTHA is in no way unique. Many other city-regions are faced with the same hard questions regarding how to deal with traffic congestion and underinvestment, resulting in similar discussions about funding new transportation investments. Across the US, there were 62 transportation related ballot initiatives – local or statewide referendums – during 2012 alone. Major cities like Houston, Atlanta and Kansas City debated proposals for sales, property and gas taxes. Overall, the success rate was about 80 percent. Closer to home, Metro Vancouver Mayors recently recommended a suite of funding tools to the government of BC, many of which, such as regional sales tax and road pricing, are being actively considered in the GTHA.
When investigating funding campaigns, it becomes clear that political leadership and promotion by transportation authorities (like Metrolinx) is rarely enough: coalitions of business and civic groups are often essential in shaping the community-wide transportation vision and in securing public buy-in about the need to tax or charge to pay for the investments.
On March 5, Evergreen’s Working Together to Move the GTHA session, part of a series of Innovation Talks, focused on the role of non-governmental organizations in advancing the dialogue around funding regional transportation. Moderated by Matthew Blackett of Spacing Magazine, the objective of the session was to share strategies and lessons learned about how to engage stakeholders and residents in the conversation, to demonstrate how GTHA organizations are working together in their engagement strategies, and to explore the key challenges in the months ahead.
To kick of the talk, André Côté from the Institute on Municipal Finance and Governance presented on recent funding campaigns from other city-regions. Last summer, Metro Atlanta held a referendum on a time-limited 1% sales tax to fund transportation investments. The conditions for success seemed to be in place: the region’s terrible traffic congestion was a major concern for residents, and the initiative had the strong backing of Atlanta’s Democrat Mayor, Georgia’s Republican governor and the business community. Yet, voters overwhelmingly rejected the new tax. What went wrong? The name of the initiative – T-SPLOST, or Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax – certainly did not stir passions. More importantly, reflected Côté, was that with an unwieldy list of 157 transit and highways projects, the communications campaign struggled to create public confidence that there was a cohesive regional strategy or about what the specific benefits were. Public confidence was further shaken because key civic groups on both sides of the political spectrum – from Tea Party-ers to the Sierra Club – could not be brought on board and came out against the plan. Finally, the vote illustrated a clear urban-suburban divide, as the Atlanta core supported T-SPLOST while surrounding areas voted firmly against.
In contrast to Atlanta, Côté reflected on the 2008 sales tax ballot initiative in Los Angeles County to fund a major transportation investment strategy, which won the support of two thirds of voters. LA, as is well known, suffers from major gridlock issues. Côté explained that, unlike Atlanta, a few key campaign elements fell into place. LA’s Mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, played a critical leadership role, both as public advocate and backroom political broker. At the same time, a coalition of environmental, labour and business leaders came together under the banner of Move LA. The coalition of unlikely partners was instrumental in creating grassroots momentum and in sending a message to politicians and voters alike. A communications campaign called “Imagine” tapped into public frustration about LA’s legendary traffic problems and engaged residents about what a better transportation future would look like. The plan itself was crafted to share the benefits across different regional and stakeholder groups – directing funds to major transit and highway investments, but also to local authorities to spend on local priorities. This was helpful politically, but also in showing the public how money would be spent and how benefits would be shared.
These two case studies point to some of the challenges for the GTHA transportation funding campaign, but they also suggest that some key conditions for success are starting to take shape. A ground-swell of grassroots and high-level engagement has sprung up in response to our transportation issue, which has the potential to transcend partisan and ideological positioning. Transportation has become an issue that private, public, non-profit, and grassroots organizations are championing.
Public consultations by Metrolinx and the City of Toronto are building awareness and engaging residents about the suite of funding options. The Greater Toronto CivicAction alliance has launched the successful What would you do with 32? campaign, which has engaged a range of regional leaders and connected directly with the public. The Toronto Region Board of Trade has recently launched its own campaign, signaling the business community’s support for specific funding mechanisms. The Pembina Institute is undertaking research and advocacy activities that align transportation investment and environmental objectives. Other organizations like the Toronto Environmental Alliance and CodeRedTO are advancing the discussion at a grassroots level.
A partnership between many of the above organizations has formed, called Move the GTHA, to act as a hub for business, environmental and civic organizations from across the region that are pressing for a regional investment strategy. An evolving partnership of diverse organizations, Move the GTHA is representative of the cooperation and dialogue needed to move our region’s transportation system forward and bring continued awareness to this critical issue.
This type of collective action is powerful. But the regional discussion will only get more difficult as the specific funding options – and the impacts they’ll have on residents, businesses and other groups – start to become clear, and the politics heats up. However, one thing seems to be clear: momentum is building, and the GTHA is moving towards an important decision. Our region has a great opportunity, one that will shape our growth over the next 20 years. It is now up to us, whether businesses, non-profits, public officials, or engaged citizens, to work together to move the GTHA.