Canada’s mayors call for multi-level transit strategy

OTTAWA – Gridlock and lack of federal funding for public transit is jeopardizing Canada’s economic recovery, say mayors from across the country.

Heading into an annual conference this week in Toronto, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities is hoping the Harper government addresses some of their transit woes that have left some of the country’s largest urban centres at the bottom of a recent international ranking on traffic gridlock and the daily commute.

"Ultimately, it comes down to sustainable funding for transit because the federal government has been very good, along with the provincial governments across the country and in our region, at building infrastructure," said Langley, B.C., Mayor Peter Fassbender. "But our challenge is the operating funds to ensure that we will meet the transit needs of the future."

Fassbender said the three levels of government in Canada need to come up with a long-term plan that addresses not only the movement of passengers, but also the transportation of goods and services.

"That is going to feed into the economic strategy for the country, for the provinces and for each of the municipalities involved," said Fassbender, also the chair of the mayor’s council for TransLink, Metro Vancouver’s regional transportation authority.

Meanwhile, a 19-city analysis by the Toronto Board of Trade concluded in April that five Canadian cities had some of the longest average commute times to and from work.

While Barcelona was on top with an average daily commute time of 48.4 minutes, Montreal and Toronto were at the bottom with commute times estimated at 76 minutes and 80 minutes respectively. Halifax was 10th in the analysis, with a 65-minute commute, while Calgary and Vancouver took both the 13th and 14th places, each with an average trek of 67 minutes.

The survey showed that Canadians in these cities were facing longer commutes than people in the busy centres of Milan, Los Angeles and Berlin.

Claude Dauphin, the mayor the Montreal borough of Lachine, noted that his region has one of the highest proportions of transit users for its population, but he said that cities across Canada all have enormous needs to upgrade and operate their services and reduce congestion.

He added that Canada is the only G8 country without a national transit strategy.

"Congestion is causing a lot of problems to our economy and that’s not the kind of thing we’ll solve tomorrow morning," said Dauphin. "All the leaders of the different (federal) political parties will have to address this question, or we will have to ask them this question."

The mayors, who are expecting to hear from Prime Minister Stephen Harper during their conference on Friday, said a new long-term strategy with funding for transit issues would also address pollution and climate change concerns.

While they acknowledge that federal and provincial governments have started to reinvest in infrastructure after a period of cuts in the 1990s, the municipal politicians say they need a long-term solution for revenues that goes beyond property taxes.

Regina Mayor Pat Fiacco said all forms of infrastructure require more investments in cities, including waste-water systems which are slated to meet new treatment standards that would require billions of dollars in new investments.

"There’s got to be a better way of conducting infrastructure business," said Fiacco. "We are in the 21st century and we’re still living on a model from 1867, and that’s not right."

The cities have maintained that they only have eight per cent of total government-tax revenues in Canada to work with, but must deliver more in terms of services and infrastructure investments.

"We (municipalities) have the most limited resources available to us and we need to look at what can be done differently," said Fiacco. "What is it that we can do differently to ensure that we will not be in an infrastructure crisis? Some would say that we already are."

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