January 9 2013
It’s being billed as the Big Conversation.
But it represents a big hope to transit advocates and civic leaders eager for signs the province is prepared to do something politically risky: imposing taxes dedicated to a massive regional transit expansion.
Metrolinx has announced plans for 12 regional roundtables, beginning in Oakville on Tuesday.
They’re the first plank in a public engagement process leading up to a June release of the provincial agency’s investment strategy — a plan for how the region will raise about $2 billion annually to build the transit improvements prescribed in Metrolinx’s The Big Move regional plan.
The province has committed about $16 billion toward various projects in the $50-billion, 25-year plan. But taxes, tolls and other fees will be needed to get the remaining projects moving and keep gridlock from stunting the region’s economy.
In announcing the roundtables, though, Metrolinx made no mention of taxes or tolls.
That’s because, more than four years after Metrolinx released The Big Move, the public still doesn’t understand it, said Dina Graser, director of community and stakeholder relations.
“Of course (the roundtables) will talk about the need for transportation investment, but they’re also really about getting people to understand not just who Metrolinx is, but what is The Big Move… .
“People need to understand what they’re paying for before you get into the conversation of how you’re paying for it,” she said.
The roundtables are expected to attract between 80 and 120 people each. Participants will be placed in smaller groups and supplied with a consultation kit, including a piece on how other jurisdictions fund transit.
The Metrolinx roundtables are a welcome sign that the province is living up to its promise of holding a public discussion on what can be a politically toxic issue, said Toronto Councillor Josh Matlow.
There was widespread skepticism last year, he said. Many worried that a minority Liberal government approaching an election would stall Metrolinx’s work on the investment strategy.
“We will all benefit from transit and therefore we should all share in the burden of building it,” Matlow said.
Former Toronto mayoral candidate Sarah Thomson is among the few civic leaders who has stated her preference for a 1 per cent regional sales tax dedicated to transit.
Although she wants Toronto to endorse the tax, Thomson — who hasn’t ruled out another run at the mayor’s office if Rob Ford is forced to vacate the seat — says the city has to be a leader for the region.
“When you look at gridlock, the way traffic flows, this isn’t just a Toronto issue,” she said.
Metrolinx officials stress that the roundtables aren’t the only forum for public input. The have issued 10,000 invitations to households across the region, from which a 36-member Residents’ Reference Panel will be selected for a weekend-long discussion.
There’s also an online tool at the bigmove.ca website that allows people to design their own transit system and figure out how to pay for it.
“What we’re striving for,” Graser said, “is a really lively, provocative conversation that gets people thinking about what it means.”
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