Time For Metrolinx To Earn Its Keep

A few days ago, Queen’s Park dropped a bombshell on local and regional transit plans by announcing the deferral of $4-billion of previously announced support for transit construction.  Details were left for Metrolinx to work out.

Pity poor Metrolinx, and its Board who are about to embark on their annual retreat.  This will be no wine and canapés in the woods outing, but some very hard slogging for “Metrolinx II”.  This is a Board that did not work through the creation of The Big Move, and many members are short on local planning and political experience.  All the same, it’s their job to sort out what is to be done.

I’m not a Metrolinx Board member.  I wasn’t even on their Advisory Panel.  But if I were, here’s the advice I would give.

Metrolinx is stuck in a policy vacuum.  Queen’s Park claims it has not lost interest in transit, merely that it wants to hold off a while to get the financial house in better order and concentrate on portfolios more demanding of short-term spending.  We have to take them at their word, but this doesn’t really tell us what support for transit will look like whenever it will materialize.

Any program that assumes one specific level of support is doomed to irrelevance on two counts:

  • If spending priorities change for any reason, the program will be out-of-step with available funding and we will be back to the familiar position of waiting for yet another proposal while the clock ticks away.
  • A single program without alternatives includes many assumptions and tradeoffs that may be hidden in private discussions, and which preclude vital public debate on what role transit should have and how it will be financed.

Queen’s Park has announced that it will produce a 10-year fiscal plan in 2011.  That plan necessarily will include (or omit) whatever funding for transit, including Metrolinx projects, that will take us to the next decade.  Metrolinx’ job is not to produce one scenario, but a range of options that can inform the creation of that plan.

For obvious political reasons (the coming provincial election), debate on these options may happen in private, and that would be quite sad.  The future of the GTA’s transit network is far too complex and far-reaching to appear as a fait accompli by way of a pre-election announcement next year.  Moreover, if the Liberals were to lose power, a single program embedded in an election platform would almost certainly be discarded as a product of the ancien régime.  You need only look to the treatment accorded David Miller’s Transit City to see what the future might do to a Liberal transit plan.

Here, Board members, are your assignments. Continue reading