Tuesday, January 12, 2016

A Question of Priorities: If We Want Better Transit, Let's Pay For Better Transit

The following post appeared as a comment appended to a post in the Valley East Facebook Group.  The original post was about a malfunctioning sensor at an intersection in Val Caron (MR 80 and Valleyview Road) which was delaying traffic to a considerable degree over the past couple of days.  At some point, the discussion veered off a little to a conversation about what else we can do to improve the flow of traffic from the Valley into Sudbury, and of course, building the Barrydowne Extension came up as the preferred solution for some posters (I've written about Barrydowne before - if you're interested, see: "Speaking Against the Proposed Barrydowne Highway", Sudbury Steve May, June 30, 2010).

I suggested perhaps a shift in focus would be a better, less expensive outcome.  Better transit, encouraging carpooling, and using transportation demand management.  Eventually, our municipal councilor added his two cents, pointing out quite accurately that the Valley was never designed for transit.  His solution focuses on growing the City, and infilling areas to make transit a better option - but for him, growth is predicated first on building more roads, including Barrydowne.  Needless to say, I don't subscribe to this approach, given the reality which our City is facing: only a small amount of growth is predicted here over the next 20 years - just 10,500 people for the entire City.  With this in mind, we're not likely to improve our transit system by relying on a strategy of infilling and road building.  Something has to give.

Another comment with regards to amalgamation was added, which got me thinking after the fact.  Maybe Greater Sudbury should start looking at deamalgamation - but not for the reasons often cited by many on the Valley East Facebook page.  My rationale: with limited resources, there's only going to be so much that we can do.  Maybe Sudbury would be better off it could cut its losses - and by that I am referring to the outlying areas, which are expensive to service, and which bizarrely are taxed at a lower rate than the inner city because of the lack of transit and fire service provided at the time of amalgamation.  Outlying area residents believe that they were better off before amalgamation - and maybe they were.  But if they were, it was entirely because of the way in which senior levels of government built subsidies into the cost of creating a sprawling, low density form of development.  Perhaps I'll have more to say about this idea later.

In the future, of course, we will start to get our act together and set the prices of things right.  Until then, if we value transit, there is a lot we can do.  Here are my comments:

Better Transit in the Valley

Just a comment on other viable options for reducing congestion on MR 80. First, about transit. Robert is absolutely correct when he says that the Valley was never designed to facilitate transit. In fact, that’s true of most of Sudbury, and most post-1950s development in Ontario and North America. Unless taxpayers are willing to provide a more significant subsidy to transit, than a sustainable system requires a degree of population density which is largely absent from most of our City (but may be present in the older parts of Sudbury, closer to the downtown). As a result of our sprawling built-form, self-supporting transit just isn’t an option. Some cities are discovering this reality, and are choosing to intensify their existing built-up areas to increase density there. That’ likely not a viable option for Greater Sudbury, as our expectations for growth are quite small over the next 20 years. 

That being said, our current Council – as past ones have done – continue to go out of their way to facilitate low density development on the fringes of our built-up areas, even in circumstances where this isn’t in keeping with the City’s Official Plan. As long as decisions like those recently made for new exurban housing on Deschenes Road in Hanmer keep being made, we’ll be moving in the wrong direction for transit sustainability. Proposed changes to the Official Plan which will make it easier for developers to create new lots in rural areas are extremely problematic. There is some that we can be doing on this front, but we're moving in the wrong direction.

So, what are our options? If transit can’t support itself, it needs to be subsidized. If we want better transit in the Valley, we as taxpayers are going to have to be the ones to pay for it – recognizing that it’s not sustainable. Sounds pretty terrible, doesn’t it? But let’s put that statement into context; right now, we taxpayers are massively subsidizing our roads system for the benefit of drivers. It is a fact that drivers do not pay more than half of the bill for the roads which they use. If we have made this choice with regards to our road system, why not shift some of that subsidy away from roads – especially new roads which aren’t needed given our low levels of development – and bolster our transit system?

It’s all a matter of priorities. And frankly, transit has never been a priority of the City – and is certainly not a priority in the outlying areas. As for amalgamation, yes, we may have had a chance to create a transit system that worked for the benefit of commuters (remember: the more people using the bus, the better that is for drivers), but we made a conscious choice not to. In fact, we deliberately chose to ignore the transit needs of those living in the Valley and other outlying areas by area rating property taxes in acknowledgement of the lower service standards for transit. And as long as these area rated property taxes remain in place (giving Valley homeowners a tax benefit over their inner-city counterparts), why should the City of Greater Sudbury think about improving our transit system in the Valley?

Again, this is about priorities. Had we prioritized transit back in 2000, there would be no area-rating on property taxes, and there would have been justification for better transit. If we prioritized transit now, we could assuredly find the funding needed to subsidize an improved transit system for users – just as we are subsidizing roads now. While it is true to state that the Valley was not designed for sustainable transit, it’s still a cop out. Frankly, the Valley wasn’t designed for sustainable road travel either – leaving property taxpayers stuck picking up that bill.

By making a shift towards a better transit system, providing more options for Valley commuters – even at a higher cost – it’s clear that all users of our transportation system will benefit. It’s just a question of whether we have the political will to prioritize doing what makes the most sense over uselessly spending money on new roads that we don’t need and which won’t improve the lives of residents. Forwarding thinking can help us get to where we need to go - quite literally for morning commuters!

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be considered consistent with the policies and/or positions of the Green Parties of Ontario and Canada)

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