Just over two weeks ago, the wheels came off Transit City and many more plans for new transit routes in the GTA. Queen’s Park, feeling poorly after bailing out the auto industry and promissing tidy sums for non-transit portfolios, decided to defer $4-billion of spending on The Big Move, the GTA’s transit master plan. The effect was felt most by Transit City whose projects were those already prepared, out the door and ready to build. Whether the work on VIVA that is also part of the first batch of funded projects will be affected, we don’t yet know.
Metrolinx has been handed the thankless task of figuring out what to do, and they’re being very quiet about it. Word on the street is that nothing is to be annouced until the May 19, 2010 Metrolinx board meeting.
For months, it was no secret that Metrolinx was working with the TTC to rein in costs on Transit City so that the projects would stay within the funding envelope, and some trimming was expected (if only by way of creating a “phase II” for some projects). As long as the total stayed within the announced funding, all would be well, or so everyone thought.
Now, Queen’s park wants to push spending (and associated debt) out into future years, and wants to “defer” about half of their previously committed funding. Reaction at the municipl level was predictable with the Miller administration openly attacking Queen’s Park for renegging on a promise. Would-be mayors are thrilled with the opportunity to have someone else delay Transit City so that candidates don’t seem obstructionist. Meanwhile, such bastions of anti-Miller sentiment as the Toronto Star and the Board of Trade have both criticised the transit cutbacks.
The unhappiness does not stop at the 416 border. Politicians who were expecting funding for transit improvements including BRT and LRT now wonder openly whether their projects will ever see the light of day.
Very quickly after the budget announcement, Queen’s Park started its damage control, and there is an ongoing attempt to say this is just fiscal prudence, but they still care about transit. A good example of the boilerplate explanations can be found in a letter from MPP Mike Colle (a former chair of the TTC) to Jamie Kirkpartick at the Toronto Environmental Alliance.
Thank you for your e-mail expressing concern with the recent Budget announcement on Light Rail Transit (LRT) funding.
Like every responsible government, we need to find the right balance between investing and cost savings to grapple with an unprecedented global economic downturn.
Investing in public transit and infrastructure is important to Toronto and to Ontario. These investments help reduce gridlock, improve air quality and create jobs.
As a former TTC Commissioner and Chairman of the Toronto Transit Commission from 1991 to 1994, the subject of accessible public transit is close to my heart, and I will continue to work towards the availability of a better, more reliable, Light Rail Transit System.
As indicated in the recent budget, this is a slowdown, not a cancellation of these projects. We are phasing in our investment – not cancelling it. This remains the biggest transit investment in Canadian history. We will work with Metrolinx and our municipal partners to chart the best course forward.
This sounds good and right and responsible until you look more closely. When The Big Move was announced, it was to include a substantial private sector component. Two of the funded projects, Finch and the SRT, were to use “alternate procurement” and might even have been completely built by an outside company. It is clear, however, that this scheme sounded better in a business club speech than it worked out in practice. Queen’s Park is treating the full cost of the transit projects as part of its debt planning rather than tapping those mythical pools of private capital that yearn to build our transit network.
Possibly they have looked at relative costs of public and private undertakings. Possibly they have looked overseas not just at the success stories, but at the failures and the pseudo-private systems that could not have been built or operated without ongoing infusion of public funds. We have already seen one of Canada’s star transportation companies, Bombardier, walk away from their responsibilities in London, England, as part of a consortium that found abandoning their contract cheaper than honouring it.
The Metrolinx investment strategy was not due for completion until 2013, tidily after the 2011 election. Nobody wants to talk about new funding sources. Now, thanks to the budget cuts and debates in the mayoralty race, funding is out front and hard for Queen’s Park to avoid. To quote Kathleen Wynne, the newly-installed Minister of Transportation,
[The Metrolinx strategy is] “perhaps a more urgent conversation than it was three weeks ago”. Toronto Star, Province not considering road tolls — yet
Queen’s Park really mishandled this file. Metrolinx had managed to bumble through several years of saying “let us build a few lines and show what we can do” as a prelude to any new taxes. Any reference to increased fuel or sales taxes were quickly swatted down, and Toronto’s “One Cent” campaign languishes with yesterday’s newspapers.
Now, in an era of big deficits and concern about mounting debt, the financial magic of boom times, the curtain hiding the machinery of public finance, are gone and people want to know now, today, how we plan to pay for our promises.
This is a tricky regional balancing act because many well-used, congested corridors will not see relief from transit construction for a very long time, if ever. The delayed promise of transit gives voters in auto-heavy suburbia every right to ask whether there will ever be something to relieve their travel problems.
Queen’s Park may try to paint the current delay as a “Toronto” issue and hope that the 905 just sleeps through the debates or assumes they are the natterings of Toronto activists with little more to do than wonder which latté emporium to visit. This would be dangerous on two counts. First, it would cement the impression within Toronto that Queen’s Park is trying to play the 416 against the 905, and when push comes to shove, the 416 gets the short straw. Second, this attitude pushes aside debate on how seriously Queen’s Park will address transit spending on the GTA whether components are in Toronto or elsewhere.
The pressures leading to The Big Move still exist — congestion, population growth, rising fuel costs, sprawl, pollution — and these pressures don’t really care about the state of the provincial debt. The Big Move started out as a $50-billion, 25-year plan with spending at $2b annually on capital, and eventually a further $1.5b on operations and maintenance. (See The Big Move at section 6.1, “Costs of the RTP”) There was hope Ottawa would come to the table, although all we have actually seen so far is a 1/3 contribution to the Sheppard East LRT project. If Ottawa walks away from any further transit infrastructure funding, this leaves Queen’s Park with the whole $50b. Local transit costs don’t even factor into these numbers, but Toronto alone consumes over $800m annually in capital and operating subsidies from various sources.
These are not small numbers. Does deferral mean just pushing the $4b back a few years, but leaving the rest of the program on its original schedule, or is the entire Big Move drifting off unto an uncertain future?
Various Facebook groups sprang up in response to the situation.
- Save Transit City
- Friends of Scarborough LRT (SRT, Sheppard, Malvern)
- Friends of the Eglinton LRT was an event to promote support for the Eglinton line, but there is not yet an actual Eglinton LRT Friends group
- Predictably, there is an Eglinton Subway group.
- There is a “Save Transit City” button, and it will be available at TTC related events such as the ATU town halls.
- The TTCriders.ca blog is organizing a letter-writing campaign to support Transit City.
Balkanization of transit planning may result from the funding crunch as advocates of each line jockey for position. This is precisely what happened with Toronto’s subway planning when available funding would build at best one line at a time. The Friends of Eglinton petition asks that the Legislature of Ontario:
… make the Eglinton LRT line a priority when developing the plan to phase in the public transit projects.
Meanwhile, pressure to support the Pan Am Games brings pleadings for routes in Scarborough serving the UofT Scarborough Campus. We cannot build everything as “first priority”.
All of this makes The Big Move with its dreams of vastly increased transit service, regional transfer hubs doubling as local development centres, and public policy encouraging, no, demanding transit-friendly city planning look rather far off. Queen’s Park owes the GTA an explanation of what is going on, not just for the next few years, but for the decades when transit was, at last, to be the government’s focus for transportation.