Wanted: a real cham­pion for our cities

Toronto Star - - TORONTO STAR -

Go­ing . . . go­ing twice . . . sold! A bil­lion-dol­lar bid­ding war has erupted in this elec­tion, with the fed­eral party lead­ers promis­ing cities bold new in­vest­ments in transit, hous­ing and other in­fra­struc­ture.

It marks a welcome change from some past races in which the con­cerns of ru­ral vot­ers fig­ured larger than those of ur­ban­ites. Not this time. On public transit alone, cities are be­ing promised at least $1 bil­lion in per­ma­nent, an­nual fund­ing by the Con­ser­va­tives; $1.3 bil­lion from the New Democrats; and al­most $20 bil­lion over 10 years by the Lib­er­als.

Fed­eral politi­cians have jock­eyed to pledge sup­port for spe­cific com­muter projects, in­clud­ing Toronto Mayor John Tory’s “sur­face sub­way” Smart­Track plan, a $1.8-bil­lion light-rail ex­pan­sion in Ed­mon­ton and Cal­gary’s planned $4.5-bil­lion Green Line LRT.

It’s with un­der­stand­able sat­is­fac­tion that Ed­mon­ton Mayor Don Ive­son de­scribed this as “a bid­ding war for cities and for in­vest­ment in mass transit, which is a real step for­ward for this coun­try.”

Hon­ing their bid, New Democrats took the un­usual step of re­leas­ing a Toronto-cen­tric mini-plat­form-on Fri­day, high­light­ing the many and var­i­ous ways the party in­tends to ben­e­fit Canada’s largest city and the vote-dense re­gions around it.

Fed­eral lead­ers ap­pear to have — at last — fully re­al­ized that 80 per cent of Cana­di­ans live in ur­ban ar­eas, places fac­ing pro­found chal­lenges and in cry­ing need of help. Years of in­dif­fer­ence and un­der­fund­ing by Ot­tawa have taken their toll. Transit ex­pan­sion hasn’t matched com­muter pres­sure, leav­ing peo­ple across the coun­try spend­ing more and more time trapped in grid­lock. A lack of af­ford­able hous­ing is mak­ing life dif­fi­cult for many thou­sands strug­gling to put a roof over their head.

Com­mu­ni­ties large and small are stuck with crum­bling roads, cor­rod­ing bridges, col­laps­ing sew­ers and ag­ing wa­ter treat­ment plants they can’t af­ford to fix. The Fed­er­a­tion of Cana­dian Mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties pegs this na­tion­wide in­fra­struc­ture deficit at $123 bil­lion and fed­eral money is ur­gently needed to close the gap. On the bright side, says Ive­son, “all par­ties see a fu­ture in in­vest­ing in cities . . . Cities are in play.”

Ur­ban vot­ers must make the most of this mo­ment and cast their bal­lots wisely. Con­ser­va­tive Stephen Harper, New Demo­crat Thomas Mul­cair and Lib­eral Justin Trudeau all stand a chance of be­com­ing prime min­is­ter. All pledge to help mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties, but their prom­ises aren’t equal — and nei­ther is the level of trust they in­spire. Af­ford­able hous­ing: The Lib­er­als have made spend­ing on in­fra­struc­ture their sig­na­ture pro­gram, and pledge to spend $19.7 bil­lion over the next decade on “so­cial in­fra­struc­ture,” with the pri­or­ity be­ing new af­ford­able hous­ing and se­niors fa­cil­i­ties. Other changes in­clude tax breaks to pro­mote con­struc­tion of af­ford­able rental spa­ces, and fund­ing for Hous­ing First pro­grams to help the home­less find a place to live.

New Democrats would ap­point a min­is­ter re­spon­si­ble for ur­ban af­fairs within the first100 days of as­sum­ing of­fice, with the im­me­di­ate task of iden­ti­fy­ing worth­while so­cial hous­ing in­vest­ments. The party would in­vest more than $2 bil­lion in af­ford­able hous­ing agree­ments by 2020, and spend $500 mil­lion on in­cen­tives to build rental hous­ing units.

New com­mit­ments from the Con­ser­va­tives are more mod­est, with the fed­eral bud­get al­lo­cat­ing $150 mil­lion to mort­gage breaks for so­cial hous­ing providers. The party does of­fer a va­ri­ety of tax cred­its to home­own­ers in gen­eral, in­clud­ing help to pay for ren­o­va­tions. Cit­ing such ini­tia­tives, Harper this past week promised to in­crease the num­ber of Cana­di­ans who own homes by 700,000 over the next five years. But that’s a far cry from pro­vid­ing hous­ing to those most in need of help. Transit: The Con­ser­va­tive gov­ern­ment’s last bud­get fea­tured a new public transit fund for ma­jor projects. Fund­ing is to grad­u­ally rise, top­ping out at $1 bil­lion an­nu­ally in 2019-20 and per­ma­nently con­tin­u­ing at that level.

New Democrats aim to in­vest $1.3 bil­lion an­nu­ally in public transit, with a four-year phase-in and the pro­gram last­ing 20 years. The Lib­er­als pro­pose to boost transit spend­ing by $6 bil­lion over the next four years, and $19.7 bil­lion over 10 years. In­fra­struc­ture: As with transit, Lib­er­als would al­lo­cate $19.7 bil­lion to “green in­fra­struc­ture,” part of which would in­clude mu­nic­i­pal wa­ter and waste wa­ter sys­tems. In ad­di­tion to that, they say spend­ing on roads, bridges, trans­porta­tion cor­ri­dors, ports and bor­der cross­ings would be “pri­or­i­tized.”

New Democrats pledge to in­crease fed­eral gas tax money flow­ing to cities by an ex­tra $1.5 bil­lion a year. And Harper last Novem­ber an­nounced a $5.8-bil­lion, three-year in­fra­struc­ture spend­ing plan on projects such as highways, wa­ter­ways, park and her­itage site im­prove­ments, har­bours, air­ports and fed­eral build­ings.

In short, all three ma­jor fed­eral par­ties are pledg­ing to do more — in many cases, a lot more — on is­sues of spe­cial con­cern to ur­ban vot­ers. But while all prom­ise to make im­prove­ments, Harper’s past fail­ure to ad­e­quately ad­dress mu­nic­i­pal needs must weigh against the Con­ser­va­tive op­tion.

What cities need most ur­gently is a prime min­is­ter who un­der­stands the piv­otal role they play in this coun­try and is gen­uinely will­ing to pro­mote their in­ter­ests. That should count more than any one prom­ise. Ur­ban vot­ers need to seize the mo­ment and make sure the next gov­ern­ment is led by an ef­fec­tive ad­vo­cate for cities.

The three ma­jor party lead­ers are all pledg­ing to pro­vide help for mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties, but their prom­ises aren’t equal — nor is the level of trust they in­spire

MIKE STURK/REUTERS

Our fed­eral lead­ers have, at last, fully re­al­ized that 80 per cent of Cana­di­ans live in ur­ban ar­eas fac­ing pro­found chal­lenges.

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