Federal transit funds too little, too late: Vancouver, Calgary mayors

WATCH: Two of Canada’s big city mayors say their cities need federal public transit funding sooner than the feds are ready to offer.

They say it’s not enough – and, even if Ottawa was offering enough infrastructure funding to cities, the envelope is opening too late.

“But I don’t want that to sound negative,” said Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi. “This federal government has in fact done some important things for cities, and in this budget they did something that we’ve been calling for, for a long time.”

Tuesday’s budget – delivered late and with a barely-there surplus – proposed a mass transit fund worth nearly $1 billion per year. The stated goal of the fund is to fight congestion and gridlock in big cities. The catch, though, is the funding won’t start flowing until 2017-18.

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READ MORE: Federal budget 2015 targets gridlocked urban commuters with mass transit fund

Canada’s mayors have long called for a national public transit strategy, so the new fund is a great step – it’s just not enough money, Nenshi said.

And the feelings are very similar west of Calgary.

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“I think, over time, there’s not enough funding there to satiate the needs of the cities across the country,” said Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson. “The traffic congestion is very serious right across country.”

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Given the federal election is still months away, Nenshi said he’s interested to see what, if anything, the opposition leaders do with the Conservatives’ transit fund proposal.

“As we’ve been saying for months, the mathematics of this election are, whoever wins the urban areas gets to be prime minister,” he said.

The Canadian public is starting to see the battle lines drawn for this election, he said, and they’re overwhelmingly connected to politics of division and of fear.

“Canadians [need] to say, ‘put it away, guys. We don’t care about the niqab at the citizenship ceremony. We care about what each of the parties is going to do to make my commute shorter, to make sure I have a decent place to live.’”
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WATCH: Toronto Mayor John Tory says he strongly supports the proposed transit fund, but cautions his city has a large infrastructure deficit.

But the problem the mayors say they are facing stretches further back than just Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government, Robertson said.

“Federal governments of all stripes have been sliding on this for several decades, and that means – whether it’s the waste water and water infrastructure that we’re trying to keep up locally or it’s these visionary investments in public transit that deal with traffic congestion – we have to be making those investments to maintain quality of life and have a successful economy here,” Robertson said.

We don’t care about the niqab at the citizenship ceremony. We care about what each of the parties is going to do to make my commute shorter.

– Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi

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Out east, however, Toronto Mayor John Tory suggested the city mayors should be content with this big step.

“Would we like to have it all come at once? Of course. But this is the first time any government of any stripe in this country has stepped up and has established a permanent fund for major public transit projects,” Tory said.

“For now, I’m just happy this fund exists. It indicates a commitment on the part of this government.”

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