In the last few months we’ve seen the birth of another useless media term related to urban planning: “shovel readiness”. Now, I’d be the first to agree that words like “stimulus”, “funding”, and “proposal” are not exciting. But frankly, “shovel readiness” is not riveting either (for one thing, it needs to be explained). Apparently we need something to make these urban planning stories exciting to regular people. That’s too bad, because the stories already have the right stuff: drama, political intrigue, intense competition. Infrastructure funding is a huge problem in both the US and Canada, although the Americans generally believe in spending when times are tough: witness the 1950s interstate system project, the largest public works project in history. Canadians believe in hoarding, giving tax breaks to the rich, and whining about how little money we have, apparently.

About 300 proposals have been submitted to the Obama administration for $8 billion in high-speed rail funding under the federal stimulus. This article from National Public Radio (NPR) shows how projects in advanced planning stages (“shovel ready”) with state or private funding already committed will probably be the winners in the competition for funds. These include high-speed links from Orlando to Tampa FL and Vancouver BC to Portland OR, while southern states face legislative or social barriers to high-speed rail. Alabama’s 1901 constitution, for example, forbids the state Department of Transportation from investing in alternative transportation, including rail. NPR suggests that a multi-modal approach is necessary, with a variety of transportation agencies collaborating to create multimodal hubs, otherwise high-speed rail riders will find themselves stranded in car-dependent areas surrounding railway stations. This approach may also help the proposals win federal stimulus funding.

In Toronto, the city managed to raise two-thirds of the funds needed to buy 204 replacement streetcars, including $1.2 billion from the City and $416 million from the Province of Ontario. Mayor David Miller had applied for federal stimulus funding, saying the streetcars would generate jobs in Thunder Bay (where 25% of the new streetcars would be built), Quebec, Manitoba, and the Greater Toronto Area. Bombardier’s report on the proposal said it would generate 5,000 direct jobs and 14,000 indirect jobs. Infrastructure Minister John Baird hinted earlier that the federal government would not fund the streetcar replacement project because it does not meet federal stimulus requirements: it doesn’t meet the 25% Canadian content requirement, does not generate jobs in the Toronto area within a two-year period and will not be completed by March 31, 2011 (and they actually used the term “not shovel ready”).

The federal government did announce $200 million in infrastructure funding for Toronto to help fund 500 infrastructure projects, including upgrades to the transit system and water mains. The City had pledged $400 million itself for these projects, which include repairing the Coxwell Sanitary Trunk Sewer, upgrading transit stations with better security, resurfacing roads, and parks and recreation projects. But no streetcar funding.

Toronto City Council held an emergency meeting on September 11, 2009 and decided to pony up the additional $417 million themselves by deferring some other capital projects. Kudos to them, and Miller, for believing the streetcar purchase was critical for the GTA.

See? Drama. Intrigue. Political positioning. And a last-minute decision to to ahead with “what’s right”, as Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty put it. Who needs made-up words?

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