2016 Villain: City Hall's Iceberg of Unfunded Capital Needs

Torontoist

2016 Villain: City Hall’s Iceberg of Unfunded Capital Needs

Nominated for: symbolizing city hall's worst fiscal tendencies.

Torontoist is reflecting on 2016 by naming our Heroes and Villains—the people, places, things, and ideas that have had the most positive and negative impacts on the city over the past 12 months. Cast your ballot until 11:59 p.m. on January 5. At noon on January 6, we’ll reveal your choices for Toronto’s Superhero and Supervillain of the year.
Heroes & Villains: Iceberg

It’s familiar to City Hall reporters, councillors, transit aficionados, and anyone else who’s ever had to sit through a City budget presentation. Normal Torontonians may not recognize it—but it affects all our lives deeply. It represents what is arguably our worst political flaw: our failure to accept that things cost money.

The iceberg, a favourite metaphor of City Manager Peter Wallace, debuted in December 2015 as a slide in the preliminary 2016 budget presentation. It made a more high-profile appearance in an official pamphlet. What does it mean? The infrastructure projects in the City’s capital budget are just the “tip of the iceberg”: there are many more planned—and necessary—projects that we don’t have the money for.

At the time, the list of unfunded capital projects totalled $22 billion. It included hefty state of good repair (SOGR) backlogs for the TCHC, TTC, and other City programs and agencies. New transit projects like SmartTrack, the Downtown Relief Line, and the East Bayfront LRT also contributed to the shortfall.

Over the last year, the iceberg has made regular appearances in staff PowerPoint presentations on City finances. Unlike real icebergs, this one only gets bigger as time goes on. In some cases it’s because cost estimates have increased. The Lower Don Flood Protection Plan, for instance, jumped half a billion dollars. Rehabilitating the East Gardiner (a 2015 Villain) has ballooned by almost $2 billion. But Council has also continued committing to extremely expensive projects with no way to pay for them. Rail Deck Park is one. It involves both ambitious engineering and pricey downtown real estate; the very rough preliminary estimate starts at $1 billion. And, of course, the less glamorous SOGR backlog keeps slowly creeping up.

By October, the iceberg was at $29 billion. When the 2017 budget was launched earlier this month, the figure was $33 billion “and growing”. There is no particular reason to believe the costs are wrong or that a significant number of projects are unnecessary. Housing needs fixing, transit needs building; these things are expensive. A few hundred million a year from road tolls is a good start, but there is no time for us to rest on our laurels. The iceberg is only getting bigger—and Council, TCHC tenants, transit riders, and more are headed for a nasty collision.


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