Toronto budget includes $50 million ‘Back on Track Fund’ to fix infrastructure Michael Lewis

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Michael Lewis

Special to Ontario Construction News

Toronto Mayor Olivia Chow has introduced her draft proposal for a $17 billion 2024 city budget that hikes overall spending by about $800 million as she makes good on campaign promises to increase investments in transit and affordable housing.

The draft proposal, which follows a staff operating and capital budget plan released in January, includes a 1.5 per cent infrastructure levy for a 9.5 per cent total ratepayers’ increase.

Both budget plans deliver $620 million in savings through spending reductions and offsets as the city grapples with a budget shortfall amid record high inflation, immigration and lingering expenses related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Chow said the 9.5 per cent tax hike is needed to maintain essential services.

“I inherited a financial mess, a $1.8 billion hole in the budget. We cannot cut our way out of this mess,” Chow said Thursday when she unveiled her budget at the Scarborough Centre Station bus terminal. If we cut deeper, we could be cutting at bone and hitting the marrow. It would damage our city and we can’t do that.”

Toronto Coun. Brad Bradford, (Ward 19, Beaches-East York) who finished a distant eighth to Chow in the city’s mayoral election in June called the mayor “tone deaf” in proposing a record tax increase at a time when “we should be trying to find savings, not making life in the city more expensive.”

On the capital side, the mayor’s budget introduces a $50 million Back on Track Fund to fix infrastructure such as roads, community centres and parks. The budget will also accelerate already planned capital investments in city infrastructure such as new community and childcare centres.

It provides $100 million over three years to retain affordable housing and an additional $1.4 million for drop-in centres for people experiencing homeless, on top of the $82 million increase for shelters and warming centres outlined in the staff budget. Final budget recommendations go before the full city council on February 14.

Chow told reporters that her budget would fund construction of a series of priority bus lanes meant to fill in for the Toronto Transit Commission’s rapid transit light rail line from Kennedy Station that was decommissioned late last year after a derailment in the summer.

At a cost of $67.9 million, with the money shuffled from savings and a property acquisition fund after not being included in the staff budget, the busway is an interim measure for Scarborough transit riders to get to and from downtown until a subway extension is completed.

City staff in a report said the extension is already over budget and behind schedule and may not be online until 2027. The mayor’s budget freezes TTC fares at $3.35 per trip and increases transit service to pre-pandemic levels, in part by recruiting more than 160 TTC workers.

“There is no more salient an example of underinvestment in our city than the derailment and shutdown of the Scarborough RT. An entire rapid transit line — with a daily pre-pandemic ridership of around 40,000 people — closed with no replacement for seven years,” Chow said in a February 1 letter to city council accompanying her proposed budget, which she said she will not defend using the expanded mayoral powers granted by the province.

“Scarborough deserves better,” Chow wrote. “The funds for the busway have been prioritized in the TTC’s capital plan. My budget fully funds the construction of the proposed busway along the RT corridor, based on the preliminary cost estimates. Should additional funds be required once the design is fully complete, I will work with TTC to deliver incremental funding for this critical project.”

Blogger and veteran Toronto transit advocate Steve Munro welcomed the busway funding news. “The uncertainty over the busway in the former Scarborough RT right-of-way is gone. Toronto will pay for the project, and the delaying tactic of waiting for provincial funding is over.

“What is needed now is a sense of urgency by the TTC to make every possible change in their project timetable to get things moving,” he added.

Munro said steps could include identifying work that can proceed without the mini environmental assessment known as a TPAP and examining whether the project can be split into south and north stages to allow direct access to Kennedy Station as early as possible.

Adam Vaughan, a former Member of Parliament and Toronto city councillor who is now a principle at public relations firm Navigator, argued that the busway is not a premium service, at the level of the defunct Scarborough LRT line, “yet, you’re paying a premium tax increase.”

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