Will Toronto be getting new streetcars? The battle begins today with the city’s draft budget

Long-suffering commuters on Toronto’s overcrowded streetcar lines and bus routes will get some idea about how much money the city will spend on transit in 2020, when the draft budget is released at city hall Friday.

It will be the first indication of Mayor John Tory’s spending priorities since he revealed a plan early last month to extend and increase the city building fund — a special property-tax levy dedicated to transit and housing projects.

The levy is expected to raise about $6.6 billion and will cost the average Toronto household around $43 next year, he said.

Sean Meagher, a staffer with the commuter advocacy group TTCRiders, says people who spoke to him at a community meeting in Scarborough Wednesday evening are anxious to hear what the city will do to battle the overcrowding they experience on the system every day.

“Sometimes that’s waiting too long for a streetcar,” Meagher told CBC News in an interview Thursday afternoon.

‘Streetcars roll by you packed to the rafters’

“But sometimes it’s having the streetcar come and it being completely full up and watching one or two or three streetcars roll by you packed to the rafters with people already on them,” he said, adding that streetcar shortages on routes downtown affect commuters in the inner suburbs as well.

“They’ve watched there be not enough buses to be able to pick them up because they’ve been rerouted to cover the shortage of streetcars somewhere else.”

In a report released last month, the TTC said the city needs to add 60 new streetcars to its fleet of 204 low-floor vehicles as part of its five-year service plan, and will need to find about $500 million for streetcars and other capital investments by 2024 to enhance its network and keep pace with population growth.

Without that funding, the report warns, buses could stay on streetcar routes and the TTC might have to “forego service improvements for growth and reliability for multiple years.”

But riders, transit experts and city councillors shouldn’t expect a specific shopping list of new vehicles in Friday’s draft budget. That’s partly because Coun. Shelley Carroll, who sits on the TTC’s board, moved a motion last month to delay recommendations and decisions on capital investments until the board’s meeting on Jan. 27.

‘Expert advice’

Carroll says she moved the motion to ensure council gets advice from transit experts on how to spend the approximately $4 billion from the city building fund that’s expected to be earmarked for the TTC, rather than have the decision be “politically driven.”

Coun. Shelley Carroll, a member of the TTC board, wants to make sure city council follows expert advice when the time comes to purchase transit vehicles, instead of making decisions that are ‘politically driven.’ (CBC)

“We have a board that … should make the initial decision what to present to council as the best expenditure of that new money … We should take careful consideration with expert advice and then recommend to council what it should be spent on,” she told CBC Toronto.

Carroll expects those recommendations to include not only new streetcars and buses but also new subway cars, as well as repairs and upgrades to the Bloor-Danforth subway (Line 2).

In addition to new streetcars and buses, Coun. Shelley Carroll says the TTC also needs new subway cars as well as repairs and upgrades on Line 2, which experienced serious delays and outages last year. (Evan Mitsui)

“So there are a lot of competing needs, and so we’re going to let [TTC staff] recommend to us the best expenditure,” Carroll said. “Is it a combination of buses, streetcars, subway cars and capital works? All I can tell you is probably.”

But there are some on council who want to make sure the budget, which goes to a final council vote Feb. 19, definitely includes those 60 streetcars the TTC called for in its report last month.

‘One hell of a battle’

“Either this is in, or there will be one hell of a battle,” Coun. Gord Perks told CBC News Wednesday. “There has been a group of about a half dozen councillors that have been trying to put together the coalition to make sure we get this purchase.

December’s report from the TTC calling for the vehicle purchases, was “a cry for help from TTC staff,” Perks says.

Coun. Gord Perks, who represents Ward 4, Parkdale-High Park, says the TTC report requesting the purchase of 60 new streetcars and 140 new buses was a ‘cry for help.’ (Lauren Pelley/CBC News)

“They’re not politicians; they can’t directly have this fight. But to the extent that they’re allowed to, this is them screaming at the top of their lungs that we must do this.”

Tory voiced his support for buying new streetcars last month after announcing the expansion of the city building fund. But Meagher, of TTCRiders, says the mayor must do a lot more, such as push for the use of revenue tools other than property taxes.

“If he were saying, ‘Yeah, in addition to what I was talking about in December, we’re going to use the revenue tools, we’re going to use our commercial tax base to make sure that our city works,’ then we’d know that this is a council committed to investing in Toronto.”

Transit advocate Steve Munro agrees, saying he expects city council to try to get money from other levels of government, rather than use other revenue tools to supplement the cash from the city building fund.

“Council is very good at saying, ‘We want parks, we want roads, we want subways … but oh, by the way, we want a shared funding scheme,'” Munro said.

“If the budget comes in and the city says, ‘Yeah, we’ll buy 60 streetcars but we’ll only pay for 20 of them and hope somebody else pays for the other 40, that’s not a very good starting point.’


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