Transit: Too Important For The Politicians? (Updated)

In today’s Star, Christopher Hume advances the argument that the only way we are going to get some decent decisions about transit hereabouts is to have a regional board with real teeth — taxing and expropriation powers.  Moreover, this board should not be composed of politicians, but of “experts”, whatever that may mean.

As regular readers here will know, I have my doubts about “experts” for many reasons, but principally because they inevitably serve some political master.  Somehow they get appointed, and that usually results directly from kissing the hand that blessed them for their supposedly apolitical role.

Just because someone is unelected and has a degree in a professional field does not make them ideal to handle the complex job of not only planning and operating a regional transportation system, but of convincing people (and those pesky politicians) that the money raised and spent actually goes for a good cause.

The TTC used to be an un-elected body, then a mix of Councillors and appointees.  That dysfunctional arrangement eventually led to a complete takeover by Council to ensure that the TTC actually operated for the public good.

To date, Metrolinx, an organization largely run by “experts” even though the public face is that of politicians, has done poor job of explaining itself and its proposals even to those, like me, who take the trouble to read all of their material.  Already, we see an immense web of transit lines with no data to justify individual components.  “Test cases” constructed as straw plans to see how they behaved in a traffic model threaten to become unchangeable blueprints for our future transit network without benefit of proper analysis.

I contrast this with the outcry from many “expert” quarters when Transit City was announced that the presumption of LRT foreclosed debate on alternatives.  Some of those same experts would now foist a regional plan on us for unquestioned acceptance.

Politicians will always be in charge of large-scale infrastructure decisions whether they are officially on boards or not.  They control the funding.  There is no way an agency with a published appetite for almost $8-billion a year will be allowed to operate without political oversight.

The challenge is for both the board and staff to have the public’s trust, to bring forward plans and projects that demonstrably improve our transportation network.  Self-perpetuating cliques, be they friends of government of the day or an old boy’s club of experts, are throwbacks to past failures, not models for our future.

Updated July 22

A comment yesterday evening from “POS” triggered a lengthy response from me, and the argument is important enough to move it here into the main part of the post.

“Steve, do I sense a hint of sour grape bitterness in your post? Who would be better suited to plan and operate this complex job?”

My point is that that any organization performing this function needs to be open and accountable, and that inevitably brings us to politicians of some flavour. Many agencies, not just those in the transit business, yearn for the simplicity of just getting a potload of money out of thin air and going forth with their allegedly good works unburdened by public oversight. A benign rule of experts.

There are three big problems. First, there is rarely enough money available for the taking without debate. The right wing spent the better part of three decades convincing everyone they are overtaxed, and the word “toll” is guaranteed to get you tarred and feathered in many quarters.

Second, the experts are not necessarily in sync with the larger public about what should or should not be done. For example, we would have a lovely highway network and no downtown if the “experts” in charge of transportation planning through the 50s and 60s had not run headlong into public opposition and, yes, another set of “experts” whose view of the world consisted of neighbourhoods and urban civility.

Third, some experts have agendas of their own born out of personal prejudice (I may like streetcars, you may like subways) or blatant conflicts of interest (property development, technology vendors).

The idea that the correct set of experts will be in power at any time is no more credible than the concept that any one political party has an ideal program and the divine right to govern without benefit of public review. The premise that we can escape the sins of decades of bad planning simply by handing our cities over to a technocracy is laughable.

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