Hey, Mayor Ford - great world cities invest in their infrastructure and citizens
Think about the cities of the world you really want to visit. London. Paris. Hong Kong. New York. Rome. Buenos Aires. Sydney. Barcelona (see photo).
All of those cities are top-notch places with vibrant night life and museums and all sorts of attractions. One other thing you'll find in most of those cities, and that's a rapid transit system that works.
Toronto's infrastructure is a joke. The subway is a scrawny, two-line affair. It breaks down with alarming regularity in a way that NO OTHER SYSTEM I'VE BEEN ON IN THE WORLD does. The streetcar system gets expanded maybe once every 20 years. Lord, even Los Angeles is kicking our butt in building new transit lines, with a huge whack of them now spreading out over the L.A. basin like tentacles on an octopus.
So here comes Toronto councillor Karen Stintz with a solid, well-researched plan to kickstart 30 years of negligence and she gets criticized for wanting to raise taxes. Of course she wants to raise taxes. That's how you build cities.
When Barcelona got the Olympics, they went NUTS and built parks and plazas and bridges and redeveloped their waterfront. The city went from a backwater in Europe to one of the great cities of the continent almost overnight. Paris has its incredible museums and the Eiffel Tower. Those aren't free to maintain but they help make the city the great destination it is.
What happens here in Toronto? Former hizzoner Mel Lastman, who you think would know something about running a business, refuses to invest in his city and instead campaigns on low property taxes. David Miller had some good ideas but even he failed to push the investment in transit issue hard enough. Now comes Rob Ford, who's well intentioned for the most part but incredibly ignorant about cities and what makes them work.
Ford's idea is to freeze taxes. It sounds good to citizens. It might get him (please, no) re-elected. But it's a travesty and a disservice to the people he's supposed to serve.
Great cities invest in themselves. They invest in their citizens. They build parks. They build subways. They build, yes, roads. But they build. And that requires money. Not so much as to bankrupt their citizens, but enough to move their cities along in an age of increasing global competition.
Have you ever woken up and looked at the Travel pages and said to your husband, "Hey, George. Let's go to Albany, New York (or Prince Rupert B.C. or Whitby, the city isn't the point). I hear they have really low taxes."
Of course not. You look upon vibrant, urban places like Paris and Hong Kong (recently named the most livable city in the world) and think, "Wow, that's a place I'd like to go."
Did Canada become the country we know and love, with good (mostly) service and free health care (mostly) by slavishly keeping down tax rates? Nope. We all pay higher taxes than our brethren in the U.S. I hate paying $18 for a bottle of California wine I can buy near my Dad's house in the San Francisco Bay Area for $7. It's a pain paying higher taxes on everything I buy. BUT I GET SOMETHING FOR IT. I get a more livable, safer country. And that's what makes us who we are as Canadians.
Ford is right about keeping an eye on expenses. City politicians DO feather their own nests and waste a ton of money on stupid projects. And on themselves. But he's dead wrong about the overall direction he's taking this city.
Cut back on the waste. Please. But don't trim taxes, Mayor Ford. Invest in our city. Invest in our people. Bring Frank Gehry back into town to build a fantastic bridge somewhere. Invite top architects to re-do Nathan Phillips Square and give them $100 million for it. It'll cost the average taxpayer an extra dollar or so on next year's taxes. Ooh, maybe even $3. But instead of saving enough for an ice cream cone, they'll get something in return. A more liveable city. And one that's more attractive to tourists who spend money at restaurants and galleries and keep our citizens employed and keep our city filled at night and safe.
Rome didn't become the city it is by keeping taxes low. They built monuments and squares and Spanish Steps and Trevi Fountains. You think it didn't cost New York City money to clean up Times Square? To scrub the graffiti out of their subway trains? Of course it did. But look at how things have improved.
By all means, Mayor Ford, get the private sector to help out. But you can't rely on them for everything. You have to kick in some cash of your own, and that means modest tax increases.
Maybe Stintz's plan to hike property taxes something like $45 a year is a tad high. Perhaps there's a more progressive, income-based plan that would spread the pain a bit. Whether her formula is correct is debatable. But her overall point is an excellent one.
Toronto can be so much more. We can be a great world destination like Barcelona or Sydney. But to be a great city, you have to spend money. You have to invest. And it's grand time Toronto got off its ass and figured that out.