New Premier, New Policies? (Updated)

Updated February 2, 2013 at 12:30 am:  The costing for Next Wave projects has been corrected to reflect that spending for local projects and roads is included in the total of $34-billion rather than as an additional cost on top of that number.

The Ontario Liberal Party has a new leader, and soon the province will have a new Premier.  Although I am not a Liberal supporter, I am extremely pleased by Kathleen Wynne’s rise to head our provincial government.  She represents the progressive wing of the party, and a fresh outlook after the increasingly frustrating reign of Dalton McGuinty.  A change of focus is already evident with social services, education labour relations, job creation and transportation infrastructure getting prominent mention.

Transportation is not first on the list, but it is vital to the GTHA.  Mobility has many benefits for business and for individuals.  Transportation infrastructure, especially transit, has far too often been treated as a cost to be avoided, to be offloaded, to be deferred while we strangle in congestion.  That congestion isn’t just on roads, plugged highways and arterials, but on the very transit systems we keep telling drivers can be our way out of the mess of 21st century gridlock.

The scope of what we need is enormous.  Within Toronto, we are accustomed to annual ridership figures now over half a billion, although this is well below half of all the journeys in the city.  Elsewhere in the greater Toronto area, transit does well to carry 10% of all travel.  The GTHA requires much, much more investment in transit infrastructure and in service to attract a larger share of the market.  Making transit a credible alternative to the automobile will not be easy, and reaching a target of 1/3 of work trips by transit in 2031 requires far more than a few trains and buses.

“More of the same” is not an option for a new government, especially one with a tenuous minority in the legislature.  Transportation problems are too big and have been set aside for another day for far too long.

Later this year, we will see the long-awaited Metrolinx “Investment Strategy”, a document that should have been published at least two years ago.  The necessary background information has been available for some time, but nobody at Queen’s Park wanted to talk about new “revenue tools”.  This lack of political fortitude and leadership, coupled with project funding delays and scope changes, cost the GTHA more lost time and compounded the deficit in transit building.

Fortunately Ontario now has a Premier-designate who is willing to talk about raising the money necessary to improve transit.  The challenge will be to actually go from talk to implementation and the creation of a funded transit plan.

We are at an important time in the political and economic cycle for the debate and real progress to begin.  Too many big announcements came just at high points when the economy boomed, only to lose the momentum to a downturn, retrenchment, and a shift of focus away from transit expansion, let alone changes in government. This pattern stretches back to the early 1970s and the Davis government’s aim to build cities for people with transit rather than with cars.

We are having the difficult, “mature” conversation about new taxes (whatever we might call them) when times are tougher.  Building transit funds into the base of government spending rather than as good-time baubles will be a major change, if it happens.

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