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Attack dog tactics trump an adult discussion of public transit

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Bike, gas tanks

It's been a deadly few weeks for pedestrians and cyclists in Ottawa.

A week ago a cyclist was killed when a driver opened a door on her on a downtown street. This past weekend a pedestrian was killed by a motorist driving on the wrong side of a street. Meanwhile, there is a trial going on of a driver who wreaked havoc on a group of cyclists in suburban Kanata and then left the scene of the accident.

If nothing else, all of this serves to remind us that issues of traffic and transportation are not just crucial to cities; they can be matters of life and death.

Against this backdrop, the House of Commons Transport, Infrastructure and Communities Committee is currently studying the question of a public transit strategy for Canada. The Committee heard from two groups on Monday afternoon, and the session showed how a tenacious attachment to ideology and political gamesmanship can stop any constructive or useful dialogue in its tracks.

Bland and non-committal

It started tranquilly enough with Tim Shearman and Jeff Walker, President and Vice-President of the Canadian Automobile Association (the CAA). A number of members, including Montreal area NDP member Jamie Nicholl and the Toronto Conservative Mark Adler, wanted the witnesses to know that they were longstanding members of the CAA, and happy for it too.

And so it was a welcoming room, and the CAA gave a fairly non-committal and bland presentation.

Shearman and Walker wanted the parliamentarians to know that they are not comfortable with the federal government dictating matters to the provinces and municipalities. The provinces have a good part of the constitutional responsibility for transport within their borders and towns and cities are constitutional "creatures" of the province. Thus, the CAA thinks the federal government should let those other governments take the lead on transit issues.

NDP Member Olivia Chow (and the Party's Transport Critic) reminded the witnesses she has   a bill before the House calling for a national public transit strategy.

The goals of Ms. Chow's bill are fairly simple: to make transit more affordable and accessible, reduce commute times and congestion in Canadian cities, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve the quality of life and the economies of the cities.

It would achieve all of this by giving the federal government a major role in funding public transit and the leadership role in forging agreement among all governments to work together to increase the accessibility, affordability and use of public transit.

"Bringing people together is the federal role," Ms Chow said to the witnesses, "Don't you agree?"

Well, the CAA does not exactly agree.

It agrees with the federal government's passing a portion of the gas tax on to municipalities. And it supports the federal government's "Building Canada" program. That initiative, which will run out in less than three years, has provided $37 billion over seven years to provinces, territories and municipalities for a wide variety of projects. Those range from highways to short line railways to airports, convention centres, solid waste management, local roads, recreational facilities and increased broadband connectivity. Public transit is on the list. It is number nine -- after highways, "short sea" shipping, airports and tourism facilities -- but ahead of disaster mitigation, brownfield redevelopment and culture.

What Ms. Chow's bill envisions is a much more concentrated federal focus on public transit. She talks about the positive role the federal government could play in improving and expanding public transit throughout the country.

At yesterday's meeting she mentioned that some smaller cities, such as Whitehorse, Yukon, and St. John's, Newfoundland, have expressed the need to add buses to their transit fleet but simply have no money to do so.

"There's a huge vacuum," she said, "The federal government must engage. No one else can."

Not car fanatics

In the end, though, the Toronto MP and the CAA had to respectfully disagree.

Messrs Shearman and Walker like the idea of sustained and predictable federal funding after the current Building Canada and program other infrastructure spending runs its course; but they are worried about the federal government imposing criteria or setting goals.

"We are concerned about the degree to which the federal government would be prescriptive," Shearman said, "If the federal government were to say 'it has to be' we would be uncomfortable."

Having said that, the two executives of the Canadian Automobile Association did not want the Committee members to think to them as pro-car fanatics.

They praised the efforts of such cities as Vancouver in Canada and Portland, Oregon in the United States. The latter is considered a model for its heavy investments in public transit that have significantly reduced car use. And Shearman reminded the Committee that bicycles were also a very important part of the transit story, and had to be included in any federal plans or programs. The CAA may be one of the main voices for car drivers, but it clearly does not want to be associated with the anti-cyclist fulminations of the likes of Rob Ford and Don Cherry.

The gloves come off

Thus ended the Committee's display of comity for the day.

The next witness was the President of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), Paul Moist, and by the time he had finished his presentation, a number of Government members were loaded for bear, raring to take a few potshots.

The CUPE president gave a reasoned and, at times, impassioned defence of public transit and its economic, environmental and social importance. And he made a quite detailed case for federal government involvement.

Much of what he had to say echoed what the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (the FCM) had earlier told the Transport Committee and then shared with the Commons Finance Committee on Monday.

Both CUPE and the organization that represents Canada's towns and cities believe that public transit is essential to the health and prosperity of the urban centres where most Canadians live. And they believe that despite the current tight economic and financial circumstances -- or, maybe, because of them -- a major federal investment in public transit is now vitally necessary.

"Public transportation is a fundamental element of an equitable society," Moist told the Committee, "And Canada is the only OECD country without a long-term national transit investment policy."

He pointed to polling data that shows massive public support for increased investment in public transit. In one poll, 73 per cent of respondents say the federal government is not doing enough to support local transit systems, while over 90 per cent say that public transit has made their community a better place to live.

Then there is the growing problem of traffic congestion. As did the FCM, CUPE cited the economic cost of congestion. For the city of Toronto alone it is $3.3 billion per year.

Moist also mentioned better health outcomes from reduced pollution and fewer accidents, improved quality of life, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, job creation, and economic stimulus.

"Public transit currently employs over 50,000 people and indirectly creates another 24,300 jobs," Moist said, "Investment in public transit would create over 18 per cent more jobs than road construction and nearly 9 per cent more jobs than road maintenance."

And, he added: "One recent study found that an investment of $71.3billion, over a five-year period, would generate an economic benefit of $238.6 billion over 30 years."

After setting the stage in this way, CUPE echoed Olivia Chow's call for a national, rather than local or provincial, public transit strategy. A Canada-wide strategy is better, Moist said, "because the costs and benefits are not just local, but are national in scope. As well, only a national strategy can assure equity and access for all Canadians."

Taxes, taxes, taxes

At one point, to illustrate the funding challenges municipalities face, Moist cited the mayor of Winnipeg's frustration that cities in Canada could not "occupy" some of the tax room created when the federal government cut two points from the GST. Cities are, in general, limited to an inadequate property tax base.

That last comment set the Conservative committee members off. They accused CUPE of favouring tax increases that their constituents would not accept.

"Taxpayers are tapped out!" Ottawa area Conservative Pierre Poilievre argued, "How are you going to pay for all of your costly proposals. There is no free money."

Moist tried to keep the conversation on transit issues. He told the Committee members that CUPE would be presenting its taxation ideas (including rolling back corporate tax cuts) to the finance committee on Tuesday, and they should stay tuned. But he had no success. The Conservatives on the Committee were more interested in attacking the leader of one of Canada's largest unions than in discussing his proposals.

Mark Adler even got quite personal. "How did you get here?" he asked.

"I walked," Moist answered.

But that did not stop Adler. "Do you have a driver?" he asked.

"I am my own driver, and I am a good driver!" Moist responded.

It all got to be a bit much for Liberal Committee member Denis Coderre, who moved a point of order calling on his Conservative colleagues to stop badgering the witness.

But Moist remained conciliatory throughout. He even pointed out that he supported a number of this Conservative government's initiatives, such as the stimulus program. And he said that much of Canada's public service deficit can be traced back to the radical cuts of 1995 Liberal government budget.

"That budget ended the Canada Assistance Plan, which was disastrous for public services throughout the country," Moist argued.

The Conservative members were unmoved. One even wanted to know how CUPE could suggest increasing taxes on corporate profits when many union members' pension plans  hold stock in corporations. None of the Conservatives asked Moist any questions , or made any comments, directly related to public transit.

It all frustrated Olivia Chow, who seems to sincerely believe that Commons committees should focus on practical, problem-solving not ideological posturing. As the meeting was drawing to a close she asked the Chair, if, in the future, the Committee might consider dealing with the many aspects of the transit issue separately.

"That way we might find common ground on some things," she said, "and we could agree on some tangible proposals."

The Chair, Manitoba MP Merv Tweed, agreed to have the Committee consider the idea, and Chow was ready to accept that.

Hope springs eternal.

But in a Parliament where attack and slash and burn too often triumph over adult discussion, what chances are there that we will ever get a full and thorough airing of complex issues such as public transit?

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