A National Transit Strategy?

The Toronto Star reports that, despite bold promises from Prime Minister Harper, no money has flowed from Ottawa’s pledge to aid transit in the GTA.  Everything appears to be mired in writing the details of contracts between the federal government and the recipients of their largesse.

Alas, this continues a pattern seen in previous federal hand-outs where Ottawa wants a complex arrangement to ensure that money is spent only in a way it approves.

Ottawa just doesn’t get it:  a real national strategy needs to operate as a standing arrangement between governments with annual support flowing to provinces and cities.  Project-by-project funding adds a huge level of negotiations and legal wrangling to a vital public service. 

Imagine if every time Toronto wanted to fund a project it had to write a separate agreement with Queen’s Park.  Project costs would go through the roof on contract negotiation and management, and the public sector would rightly be accused of wasting money on bureaucracy.  Strange to see a “conservative” government entangled in this way.

If Ottawa really wants to be part of a transit strategy, it needs to decide on a general level of spending, set broad guidelines for the type of project that constitutes “transit” and then get out of the way.  Transit programs are delivered at the local level, and decisions about details and priorities belong there.  We have enough meddling from Queen’s Park without Ottawa adding another layer.

14 thoughts on “A National Transit Strategy?

  1. Cases like these that make me sad that the Toronto Act ended up being so weak… even though council is doesn’t have the guts to use a watered-down Act, nevermind an Act with teeth.

    All this government wrangling wastes not only money, but time as well. What is all this wrangling about? More subways to Minister’s ridings? Or is it GO Trains to Niagara Falls? (what a farce that suggestion is, it amazes me that they can concieve something so absurd as GO to Niagara yet they never… NEVER… hear the desperate calls from Kitchener for an extension from Milton)

    All the wrangling really shows how bad the situation is with governments meddling in public transit. Jane Jacobs didn’t like government involvement in this, and this shows exactly why, all too clearly does this illustrate what goes wrong. It creates a strong argument for privatization since the mechanics are clearly crippled with the government in control, but privatization is an extremely dangerous path. Dangerous as it may be, some emergency models may be well advised to be drawn up. Seriously, we can’t allow things to go on the way they are now, growth and prosperity and possibly quality of living could be endangered in the future. If this continues for much longer, the public is going to have to kick the government out of the TTC and GO Transit (ironic considering GO’s acronym). The government has repeatedly shown utter incompetence in the public transportation sector, and this is even true under transit-friendly Mayors/Premiers.

    Why were the Yonge and Bloor subways successful? Because the government had very little to do with them, that’s why (I really wish the city never blocked the construction of the three subways (Queen, Bloor, and Yonge) the privately-run Toronto Street Railway Co. wanted to build around 1910, we’d have something so vastly and dramatically different today if those had been allowed to go through, and I think it might have developed and grown to something rather impressive compared to what we have today, though not without trade-offs). The TTC knows what its doing, yet the government never listens to it. The Spadina Extension being a prime example (Sheppard had a better argument than this prize-winner).

    Steve: Some historical corrections are needed here. The Yonge Subway was built by the TTC, a City agency, mainly by using profits accumulated during the second World War when riding was high; the Bloor Subway was built with subsidy funds from Queen’s Park and the Metro Toronto government. Indeed, the municipal subsidy of the BD subway led to the end of zone fares with the argument that suburban riders whose taxes paid for the line should ride it at the same cost as city riders.

    The Toronto Street Railway Company ceased to exist in 1891 and was replaced by the private Toronto Railway Company. This company refused to extend its lines beyond the boundaries of the city as they existed in 1891 and the city had to create the Toronto Civic Railway to serve growing neighbourhoods such as St. Clair, Danforth and what we now call the Bloor West Village.

    Early subway proposals for Toronto came from Ontario Hydro with plans to extend their “radial” network of suburban lines into downtown. That’s why there is a lower deck on the Prince Edward Viaduct.

    As for modern schemes, the original Spadina Subway plus its proposed extension and the Scarborough RT are linked to private sector property developers who skewed transit (and expressway) planning to suit their needs. The Spadina expressway and subway go where they do because of Yorkdale, and the SRT serves a “Town Centre” that is an adjunct to a shopping mall. As for the Spadina extension, the momentum it has comes from property interests even though there are better ways to spend available transit capital.

    Sheppard is a strange bird that was claimed to be needed in support of intensification in development around “downtown” North York. Oddly, the main line that most of the new riders use is Yonge, not Sheppard, but it soothed Mega-Mel’s ego to get a huge, expensive subway junction.

    I don’t think that anyone’s hands are clean in this — private or public sectors — and large scale transit projects will be gerrymandered to suit political interests, broadly speaking, no matter which sector builds them.

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  2. Steve, you said, “A real national strategy needs to operate as a standing arrangement between governments with annual support flowing to provinces and cities.”

    It strikes me that that will probably be a major sticking point — should the money go directly to the cities or to the province (whose funding is also necessary especially for capital expansion)?

    And this prime minister, more than any in recent memory, is Mr. Strings Attached. I’m not hopeful.

    Steve: For all that Mayor Miller’s One Cent campaign has been reviled in many circles, its strength lies in being a flat, easy to understand funding transfer from the Feds to the Cities with no strings.

    I am amused that nobody demands that I put a “Canada” wordmark on anything I do with a tax cut from Ottawa, nor must I invite the PM to visit for a photo op (he may be too embarrassed anyhow). But if Ottawa gives my city money, they want a brass band and all sorts of credit even if they’re only contributing ten percent.

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  3. Steve, Betcha Vancouver didn’t have to worry as much as they have an Olympics coming up.And we all know how quickly a city’s infrastructure gets upgraded when something like this happens!

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  4. Steve:-

    I totally believe that the 1% GST cut should’ve have been a 1% GST transfer to municipalities. But the nature of our politics is that the provinces would likely have cut money from municipalities to make up for the lost transfer payments that they don’t get from Ottawa.

    Which like him or loathe him was a large part of the Harris downloading program. Make it someone else’s problem so they have to find the means to pay for it. Messr’s Chretien, Martin took the ball from Mulroney who started the cuts and ran with them. Our current PM and premier are simply carrying on these sad traditions. So I suspect that Mr. Harper and Mr. McGuinty (or his replacement) are going to continue to have a transit strategy of “big” projects where they contribute enough to cover putting their wordmark on the signage. It’s not not new and it’s certainly not right!

    Sadly, transit funding is one area that even the US appears to be more enlightened than we are. Although those funds have been subject to political interference from Washington, especially of late.

    We need to demand more for all the dollars we send off to Queens Park and Ottawa!

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  5. Steve, the last week or so I have been touring the states and decided to park my van at the hotel and take transit everywhere. One thing I noticed many of these cities lack ridership, or overcrowding. I talked to some CTA workers in south side Chicago and they told me the Republicans pays 20% of the operating costs. And the state pays nothing in the ways of stable day to day funding. (Sounds too familiar to me.) The Brown line capacity expansion is paid for by Chicago and the feds, but not the state. Just something people told me in Chicago.

    In regards to the National Transit Strategy, it is not going to happen because of the simple fact that it is unstable one time sources. The city must get its house in order in regards of taxation and the like. (No Toll Booths Please!!! Enough of that on I-90 LOL)

    I am not saying contracting stuff out (No proof that it saves money) will work, but we need the tools to build on. A strong world class city tells the upper levels of government “we don’t need your help we can build it ourselves.” That’s a city to be proud of. It’s time to tax with the tools we have, bring on the new taxes, (I will pay an extra $80 or whatever for an alternative to my van.) most people will not mind paying a little more as long as they see the money being used on our streets. That’s my beef, Steve.

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  6. Much has been heard lately about private enterprise doing things governments are not prepared to do (Read hydro, 407, Airport-blue etc.). This certainly reduces the capital debt to the government but these private companies are in business to make money and guess who pays one way or the other.

    Where transit systems cannot charge enough to make a profit they are either subsidized or collapse. For ‘subsidized’ read ‘government controlled’, right back where we started.

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  7. Steve said: “Early subway proposals for Toronto came from Ontario Hydro with plans to extend their “radial” network of suburban lines into downtown. That’s why there is a lower deck on the Prince Edward Viaduct.”

    These are different proposals from the ones I was referring to. Toronto Railway Company (thank you for the correction, I had forgotten about the name change) put proposals for subways in 1910 for Queen (Ronces to Coxwell), Bloor (Ronces to Broadview) and Yonge (Front to St.Clair). This proposal was shot down by the city at the time, and they shut down TRC in 1915 (taken over by the city’s Toronto Civic Railway, apparently their patience ran out). Seems very foolish in hindsight as they run off and become complete hypocrites and build the Bloor Line themselves decades later with the public purse instead of the private purse, and the Queen Subway (even as a streetcar subway as was roughed in at the Yonge Line station), which does have a business case arguably in its favour (as the DRL), still never materialized, as we near the 100-years-later mark from TRC’s proposal!

    Steve: Sorry for interrupting here, but the TRC lasted until 1921 when its charter ran out and it was replaced by the TTC. The Toronto Civic was created because the TRC refused to extend its system to Danforth, Bloor West and St. Clair, all lands outside of the City as it existed in 1891. What’s more, by the last decade of their charter, the TRC had allowed its equipment and infrastructure to deteriorate badly, and the TTC’s first job was to fix the mess left behind by their private-sector predecessor. It was a classic case of getting to make early money from the franchise and then let it rot through lack of investment.

    The station at Queen and Yonge was part of a TTC design for a streetcar subway that would have been fed at either end by many lines, not unlike the “flying U” you describe.

    Steve said: “The Yonge Subway was built by the TTC, a City agency, mainly by using profits accumulated during the second World War when riding was high; the Bloor Subway was built with subsidy funds from Queen’s Park and the Metro Toronto government”

    I suspect I failed to make myself clear in my previous statement, sorry about the confusion. Funding and involvement were not meant to be interchangeable in my argument. Yonge being the prime example as it was pretty much paid for in cash up-front, a capital-debt-free subway (ah, how far 59 million went back in the 40s/50s), it is truly ideal to not pay interest on something that size. The TTC is a city agency, however that does not mean it is a division of the city, and it is clearly explained in every annual report that the city is not supposed to use political might/influence to twist the TTC’s arm (but alas, this happens all the time now since it does not have the 100% cost-recovery ratio). As such, the TTC called the shots with not only Yonge, but Bloor as well, since it still did not require operational subsidies at that point in history. This quote from a Transit Toronto Article also helps explain where I am coming from:

    Transit Toronto Article Excerpt: “Eventually the TTC (Bloor-Danforth Subway) proposal won out (over the Flying-U Subway via Queen, very strongly favoured by the city). Although I have not been able to find out how the TTC convinced the City of Toronto to accept its proposal, I speculate that the fact that the TTC was still financially independent helped. The Yonge subway had been built almost entirely from farebox revenues, and it looked as though the cross-town subway was going to be built from farebox revenues as well. Since the TTC did not require subsidy from Metropolitan Toronto, they may have been shielded from political pressure.

    That last line I bolded is critical and it paints a dark picture of how the TTC is failing to sustain its independence and its future today.

    Steve: The Bloor-Danforth extensions were paid for partly by Metro, and they opened in the late 1960s.

    After 1970, since which the TTC has needed subsidies, the pattern of subway construction is a clear contrast against past practices and shows the TTC is no longer calling the shots (money talks, as they say, and the TTC no longer has money):

    Spadina Subway (original): An “I’m sorry for starting the Spadina Expressway” from Bill Davis.

    SRT: A desperate attempt by the province to “show off” (if they only knew at the time) the technology it had been investing money into R&D for (they say this was supposed to be a flirt with maglev, which explains its linear-motor application).

    Sheppard Subway: Mel Lastman’s delusional scheme to turn his Square’s neighborhood into one that rivals the surroundings of Nathan Phillips’ Square.

    Spadina Subway Extension to Vaughan: Why not be honest about it and call it the Sorbara Subway Line?

    This pattern really needs to stop (as I’m sure you’d agree), and that was why I suggest that what-ifs be at least analyzed for the unadvisable but arguably better-than-what-we’ve-got alternative of privatization, since it was the private model mind-set (of a financially independent TTC) that lead us to our successful subway lines, even when facing political strong-arming.

    Steve: I beg to differ. The private sector has no interest in building transit lines because they cannot make money on them. In “the old days” private sector construction was attractive because the transit company was also the property developer, and the trolley lines (and in some cases subway lines) opened up new neighbourhoods. Also, of course, there were no autos to compete with.

    These days, the decision on where to build will always be political because that’s where the money (of only in the form of guarantees and operating subsidies) will come from.

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  8. In an editorial on the subject today, the Star points out the near-billion is for previously confirmed projects. I’m under the impression the Feds are also in the process of discussing their larger National Transit Strategy for future projects with the provinces and the Federation of Canadian Municipalities.

    Ontario is only one province of ten, but it is in an election period and I wonder to what degree a lack of progress on transit investment relates to fears of appearing to support the Liberal’s 2020 “vision”. Could we see movement after October 10? Things would certainly change if there were a federal election this fall…

    Also, does the existence of the GTTA affect the way Ottawa will pick and choose projects? Finance Minister Jim Flaherty has mentioned several ideas for GTA transit and roads — how closely would he heed direction from GTTA?

    Ed D.

    PS — At Friday’s monthly GTTA meeting in Hamilton, MTO will present its current transport planning initiatives.

    It would be interesting to see a federal presentation.

    PPS — I myself may be unable to get out to Hamilton, so if anyone attending wants to report back, that would be welcome…

    Steve: The report is very road oriented. Transit is mentioned including the falling market share and continuing rise of the auto, but not much beyone the cross-GTA transitway is mentioned.

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  9. Unfortunately the notion of “standing” federal funding being available for Toronto transit projects is a pipe dream. For anyone that knows about machinations of federal infrastructure dollars for any project, it always comes with the requirement for a detailed “contribution agreement” that details “eligible expenditures” pretty much down to the paper clips. The feds don’t do business in a “just send us the invoices” sort of way, which would assume a level of trust for junior governments that clearly isn’t there. Of course this does add endless delays to projects but it probably marginally better than no funding at all, which had been the case (uniquely in the western world until a few years ago).

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  10. “Ontario is only one province of ten”

    You see, there’s the problem right there. John Tory berated Dalton McGuinty at the debate about how Ontario is now bottom of a whole series of categories. Now while you might agree or disagree with his own policies, he had a point here. Ontario is one out of ten provinces but has one out of every three Canadians (and more) living here. We are first among equals but instead we have let Quebec hog all the special treatment that’s going.

    Unfortunately Ontarians don’t see themselves as Ontarians, we see ourselves as Canadians – but every other province sees themselves as Albertans/Newfoundlanders etc.

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  11. While it is necessary that there be a longterm agreement instead of funding for individual projects, It’s not as easy as some have been implying.

    First, simply covering 33% of every new transit capital project sounds good, but is not really responsible govenment. The federal govenment needs to be able to budget, and simply allowing provinces to force spending with no limit is unreasonable. There would need to be some sort of cap. Otherwise, My home province of Alberta could conceivable consume 50% of the federal surplus by spending our surplus on transit.

    With a cap, once the cap is hit, how do you distribute the money? Do all projects proportionally get and equal portion of the funding? Does each province get it’s slice proportional to population? Does each metropolis get a share, or should there be some sort of judgement on the value of the project?

    Remember, there are 6 cities with capital intensive transit and all of them want to expand, and there are another dozen or so that are looking to get into the game.

    Steve: This is precisely the reason I oppose percentage based formulas and prefer simple block transfers. If the feds give us $X-billion every year, adjusted for inflation, we cut our project budget to fit. The only caveat might be that no project could be funded at a level higher than 1/3 by Ottawa dollars to prevent provinces and cities from ducking their share. However, if the feds were feeling poor, it wouldn’t prevent us from spending more. Yes, it lets them off the hook, but it keeps our transit projects from being hostage to the whims of whoever is in power.

    The Liberals have said that they will go ahead with spending their 2/3 of the MoveOntario money, but this means we have to shed about $6-billion worth of projects. Any bets on which projects get axed and which are fair-haired children?

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  12. Shouldn’t the tax rates be changed (lower the federal, raise the provincial so the total take off a paycheque is same), to enable the province to support local transit projects without the Fed’s help?

    Some merit can be seen in having two levels of goverment to review every project (say municipal + provincial for local / intermunicipal undertakings, and provincial + federal for rail lines / highways / airports of provincial or national importance). But why involve three goverments at once? Each spends money and time while its own employees or hired contractors review the proposal …

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  13. Steve said, ‘Strange to see a “conservative” government entangled in this way.’

    It shouldn’t be. The “conservative” movement of recent years is not mostly made up of the Chamber of Commerce small-government advocates. It’s made up instead of centralisers who use the language of “small government” to put control in their own hands.

    For instance, Mikey and his merry band in Queen’s Park weren’t interested in smaller government; they were interested in fewer governments, which is not the same thing. Nobody who thinks small government is a good idea would have imposed on Toronto (or Ottawa or even, for heaven’s sake, Hamilton) the massive municipal mess we have now.

    The current federal government is the same — micromanaged from the PMO, everything has to be cut to meet the agenda of the handful of people who are running the country. This automatically entails huge bureaucratic control, because it means that every detail has to be supervised.

    Unhappily, I can’t see anything about this state of affairs changing. Canadian politics, like those elsewhere, have gradually been remade in the image of advertising. That automatically means the kind of control over image that advertisers have become good at, and such imaging requires a great deal of control.

    I have wondered more than once, however, whether the City should consider merging the TTC with the rest of its transportation divisions, such as that responsible for streets. If the department were big enough, I wonder if even the “senior” governments would have to give in to some local prioritisation at the expense of federal or provincial election concerns. Of course, a department that big would be the source of its own difficulties, so it’s hard to know whether it’d be a good idea in the long run.

    Steve:

    I was, as you probably realize, being ironic. It is hard to write anything about the Tories without taking that tone because, as you describe, they so thoroughly violate the very principles “conservatism” is supposed to espouse. In many ways, I am a fiscal conservative (don’t spend what you don’t have), but part company with the Conservatives on which programs the government should fund and how they should raise the money to do so.

    As for the TTC taking over the City Transportation function, from a budget point of view, the TTC is already huge, and tacking on the roads spending won’t make a big enough change to really alter the profile of transit. The biggest problem we have is that Council talks a good line on transit, but bends to road interests at almost every opportunity.

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