Stimulating sprawl

Lawrence Solomon
National Post
April 4, 2009

Sprawl in Toronto just got its biggest boost in 50 years, thanks to Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty’s decision this week to stimulate the economy through a $9-billion spending spree on transportation infrastructure. Look for Toronto to bust out all over – North, East and West – in line with the major routes he promises to fund. And look for low-density sprawl to spread to Toronto’s detriment, just as occurred with the uneconomic transportation infrastructure built in the past.

Fifty years ago, the big impetus to sprawl was the creation of Metropolitan Toronto, a melding of a viable Toronto with its struggling suburbs. Among the legacies of Metro was the financial destruction of the Toronto Transportation Commission, then the premier transit system in North America. Before Metro’s creation, all of Toronto’s public transit routes were robust and profitable. Upon Metro’s creation, the TTC’s profitable routes were bled in an attempt to provide transit service to the unprofitable low-density suburbs. Soon, virtually all of the TTC’s routes, in both city and suburb, became unprofitable, and the city, too, fell on hard times.

Metro’s ruinous expansion of transportation infrastructure included an expressway network that was abruptly halted with one major component, the Spadina Expressway, half built. Another major component in an even earlier state of construction – the Crosstown Expressway – was likewise halted (Toronto residents will recognize the only part that was built as what now appears to be a seemingly endless interchange connecting the Don Valley Parkway to Bayview Avenue and Bloor Street).

Now the Crosstown is back, a few miles north of the original Crosstown route and recast as a light-rail road, rather than as an automobile expressway. Like the original, this express route, now called the Eglinton Crosstown Rapid Transit line, is divorced from the needs of riders – the minimal traffic to be carried can justify perhaps one-tenth of its estimated $4.6-billion expense. The rest is waste.

McGuinty’s justification for the line is neither need nor profitability, but “shovel-ready projects” and “economic stimulus.” In this he is not alone: Governments throughout the continent are shovelling money as fast as they can, largely into low- or no-value infrastructure projects that have never had either the financing or the customer demand to proceed. With wasteful government spending now seen as a virtue, all restraints are off, particularly since much of the spending is also justified on environmental grounds. Along with unneeded transit and roads, we’re seeing unneeded windmills and other green power plants, and the unneeded power grids to support them.

In the government’s thinking, the immense cost of this stimulus spending, and the decades of indebtedness it brings, is justified by an immediate benefit to the economy and a long-term benefit to the environment. But the consequences to the environment are often negative, not positive, even with seemingly praiseworthy projects such as public transit.

This was the case with Metropolitan government 50 years ago, when subsidized public transit and other infrastructure fuelled the growth of the modern suburb, and this was also the case almost 100 years ago, when public transit played a dominant role in the creation of Toronto’s older suburbs.

Until the 1920s, Toronto’s suburbs were viable – small, self-supporting communities that had developed on the basis of local agriculture or some other local industry. Transit to the suburbs – at the time provided by a profit-oriented private sector – was minimal, in keeping with the minimal demand. Then Toronto’s municipal government asked the private sector to operate unprofitable routes to the suburbs and, when it refused, took over the private company and bent transit services to its will. The suburbs soon over-expanded, became financially insolvent and, when tough economic times came in the 1920s and 1930s, they became derelict and most became bankrupt, leading the province to take over their financial affairs.

Dereliction is also a consequence for Toronto of sprawling suburbs. City taxes must rise to provide services for those in the suburbs who use city roads and other city services; city taxes must then rise again as businesses and residents flee the tax burden in the city, leaving those behind with higher tax burdens. City governors, meanwhile, cut back on services to fend off a tax revolt. It is this vicious cycle that leads to the hollowing out of cities.

Preceding every hollowing out, we hear hollow words. This week, we heard Premier McGuinty announcing “the most ambitious project of its kind in Canadian history” and promising that more money would come.

Lawrence Solomon is executive director of Energy Probe and Urban Renaissance Institute, and author of Toronto Sprawls.

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