The Metrolinx Investment Strategy (Draft) is a really odd collection of documents, and as I look at the presentations, I can’t help feeling there is a mountain of background somewhere that Metrolinx would prefer to keep out of sight.
On the agenda of September’s Board Meeting, we find a glossy brochure that is clearly intended for the coming public review. For a “draft”, it has the look of something rather final to me. With a section titled “Your voice matters”, this is not intended for the Board’s consumption, but for the process that Metrolinx calls public consultation.
Worth noting are Rob MacIsaac’s own remarks at last Tuesday’s briefings. On at least two occasions, he said that there won’t be much pressure for change in the plans based on the extensive consultations to date. He is prejudging the outcome, and that’s no way to ask for public input.
The separate presentation to the Board is not available online, but I have reformatted it on my own site. (Note to the purists: most of this was scanned as text and then cleaned up to avoid problems with blurry copy-of-copy scanning.)
The heart of this “strategy” is to do next to nothing about proper transit funding for many years (at least one if not two election cycles), and to live off of the previously announced $11.6-billion MoveOntario money. A subset of the projects in the 15-year draft Regional Transportation Plan was selected to soak up this money, and if the Tooth Fairy is feeling generous, we might even get another $6-billion from Ottawa to stave off actually making a decision about transit funding for almost a decade.
One thing nobody has bothered to explain is the selection process for projects that made it onto the short-term list. The draft RTP has only just been released, and we know that some of the regional politicians are not happy with what it contains and omits. How can we already have a short list of projects, some of which are going through the “benefits case analysis”, a process whose parameters have not been defined or discussed?
If we accept that the MoveOntario nest egg will finance projects for several years, then much of the recent pressure to complete the RTP by November evaporates. We already know which projects will require financing in the near term (in particular the next few Provincial budget cycles), and beyond that point all that is really needed is a placeholder of the appropriate magnitude. The big decision is to determine how much we will invest in transit year by year, not which specific projects we will spend the money on in any specific year.
Almost nobody wants to talk about new taxes or tolls or any other way to get these projects rolling. Paul Bedford, a Metrolinx Board rarity who is not a sitting politician, is the notable exception. He argues that we must engage people now in the debate in how we will fund the growth of transit infrastructure.
Even all the talk of private financing doesn’t address how we will pay down the debt once a new network is actually built and operating. When we combine this with the lack of ongoing funding for operation, maintenance, capital renewal and expansion of existing transit systems, there is a gaping hole in the transit funding policies.
In June 2008, the Metrolinx Board considered a presentation on the Investment Strategy. This document included among its purposes the maintenance and renewal of existing and future regional transportation infrastructure. “Existing” is a key word here, and this consideration seems to have fallen from view in discussions of transit funding. It is not enough to dream of new lines, but we must maintain and strengthen what we already have.
Page 6 shows a graph based on the White Paper scenarios with combined annual renewal, growth and operating costs of:
- $3-billion for “Business as usual”
- Just under $6-billion for option “A”
- $7.5-billion for option “B”
- Over $9-billion for option “C”
The September report shows these costs reaching a plateau of about $3.2-billion (see chart on page 21). For all the talk of a “bold”, approach to transit, the proposed spending does not rise much above that plateau until the mid 2020’s and drops back again by 2028. The huge “investment gap” of June 2008 vanished over the summer. Part of this is due to projects that were dropped from the plan (such as the regional express line in the 401 corridor), but I have a hard time reconciling the September project list with the large reduction in project costs.
Only when, and if, we see detailed project estimates in the capital plan later this year will we have some idea of what is going on. Did Metrolinx highball its earlier estimates? Are current estimates unreasonably low? We will probably never get to see the detail behind the June figures, and won’t have any way to know what magic brought the total project estimates down so dramatically.
The June report contains several examples of tolling schemes including the per-trip cost of various journeys at different levels of tolls (see page 15). This table, were it published in, say, the Toronto Sun, would provoke considerable unrest, delicately speaking, and it’s no surprise that the issue of tolls is not high on anyone’s priority list. Another table (see page 17) contains a wider range of options all expressed from the point of view of what is needed to generate $1-billion a year in new revenue.
Some of these are really not “new” revenue streams. For example, increased capital or operating grants may make transit systems happier, but they still represent net new government spending. Similarly, debt financing requires a matching revenue stream — the money doesn’t just fall out of the sky.
A one percent regional sales tax would yield $1-billion, and this is the option I favour. It touches everyone who will benefit from a better transportation network, and it is a revenue stream that grows with the economy. Although this may sound odd coming from a “transit advocate”, I believe that the cost of transit infrastructure is too often treated as something we can foist on the motorists through tolls, gas taxes and vehicle levies.
We already know from recent experience with gas prices that increases far higher than anything proposed for transit support would be absorbed by the motoring public with little effect on congestion. Drivers trade down to their fuel-efficient car, they take fewer non-essential trips, but they still drive to work because there isn’t a reasonable, attractive alternative, and there won’t be on a regional scale for a decade or more.
The revenue is needed now both to finance Metrolinx plans and to sustain and expand our existing transit systems.
The June report shows a workplan leading to a fall release of the Investment Strategy. Dates have slipped a bit since June, and we have heard nothing of the reports and consultations. Instead, we have a “do nothing” strategy leaving MoveOntario more or less where it was the day it was announced in June 2007.
“Business as Usual” has triumphed over “Dare to be Bold”, but an analysis stopping there would be simplistic. We need to understand the differences in estimated cost for the “Bold” plan and the current strategy. $6-billion a year is a lot of money to vanish from the table.
What might we have obtained for that spending? Have the needs actually vanished, or simply been swept into someone else’s budget?
Metrolinx owes its own Board, Queen’s Park and the residents of the GTAH some straight answers. Without them, we cannot begin to craft a transportation strategy and evaluate the ways we might finance it.