Let's not fool ourselves into thinking endless discussion builds transit.
The city's current Feeling Congested? consultation's search for feedback on what new taxes and charges residents would tolerate for transit is a worthy project because it helps sell the idea that we all need to pitch in for common services.
But no mysteries will be revealed. We've known for years how much each new direct tax or user fee would bring in, since they've all been used somewhere in the world. On top of that, we basically understand how to implement them.
The sad reality is that the window for transit expansion is very narrow and reliant on prevailing political pragmatics. Consider that the timing of Metrolinx's final report on new revenue tools, due in June, was scheduled to avoid a politically difficult report from coming down the path before the last provincial election.
"Politically difficult" is the operative phrase. None of the 14 funding options offered in the city's consultations will be easy to adopt. (The city will make its report on the consultations and feed the info into Metrolinx's process.)
Tolls are known to kill political aspirations, and we know how popular vehicle registration taxes are. The other tools aren't likely to be well received either when talk gets serious about implementation, despite early promising polls to the contrary.
And to raise over $2 billion a year, the minimum needed to see serious progress on building transit in the GTA, there will likely need to be several new revenue sources.
The new premier, Kathleen Wynne, who's indicated her general support for transit funding, could show her seriousness by using the spring budget to implement new charges for transit, whether road tolls, dedicated sales, fuel or payroll taxes or others.
There's already a high degree of literacy on these issues, and it would be a way of giving direction to Metrolinx and demonstrating a serious commitment to moving forward.
The problem is, if the premier doesn't use the coming budget to fund transit and waits until the June Metrolinx report (assuming the Liberal minority government even survives the 2013 budget debate), we may have missed our opportunity. The political headwinds will make the conversation more difficult.
Metrolinx's report arrives in June, but summer isn't a time when major legislative processes are usually advanced, and the legislature likely would not continue sitting. New laws would come forward in the fall at the earliest, putting the timing precariously close to the 2014 budget.
That new budget will start getting serious drafting in the last months of the year and is expected to be presented in the first quarter of the new year. But this set of figures will likely set the stage for an election; the Lib minority government would be almost three years old, an eternity in the world of provincial minorities.
Taxes or user fees are always going to be controversial, and to date, this minority Liberal government has been reluctant to take on difficult issues. There will be very strong opposition from the Hudak Conservatives against any form of new revenue generation.
At the same time, 2014 will be election season for the city, and it seems pretty clear what Mayor Rob Ford's platform will be going into the election, especially in light of his recent bid to cut the land transfer tax.
While this gives his centre-left opponents an opportunity to differentiate themselves, it would take a bold electoral strategy to do this on the revenue tool issue, given that the path to victory is the quarter to third of the electorate who can be swayed to either the right or left. And the province certainly won't introduce new tax measures if the city electorate turns down a candidate pushing for them.
All this leads to a depressing scenario: without action soon, we may enter 2015 without the means to fund transit. The time for talking is over. Any remaining research into public support for new revenue tools can easily be done by public engagement techniques, and any remaining legal or implementation challenges could be resolved by experts and lawyers. The only thing missing is political will.