Glen Murray has only been sitting in his new office as Minister of Transportation and Minister of Infrastructure for Ontario for about 2½ weeks, but already his comments in the mainstream media (Globe Star) and on Twitter (@Glen4ONT) show that business as usual will not be the style of his office. We chatted for about 45 minutes earlier today.
I began by asking about the change of his Twitter handle from the suffix “TC” (for his riding’s name, Toronto Centre) to “ONT” and his recent comments about transportation in northern Ontario. Murray’s focus there is on economic development, and the need for transportation facilities to support investment, especially in mining. On the question of passenger services, it was a bit harder to nail down the Minister’s position.
Murray is a big fan of High Speed Rail, and feels that the Windsor-Quebec corridor needs that sort of investment as an important first step, followed by improved rail and bus feeder services. Yes, but what does this do for the north? Murray sees the need for a spine rail service linking Toronto to the north with bus routes feeding into that spine, but neither details nor any sense of timing emerged.
Two important dollar figures, however, came out. First, in southern Ontario, current spending on the 400-series highways is about $2.4-billion annually, and there is an argument to be made for upping spending on transit. Second, mining now brings in about $1-billion annually, and the industry’s primary complaint is the lack of infrastructure, not their tax burden, according to Murray.
Metrolinx and The Big Move
In a February 20th interview with the Globe and Mail, Murray spoke of “smarter investments”. I asked him to elaborate on this.
An important issue for Murray is that transit investment should be directed to places people want to go and where transit can stimulate better land use. Although Metrolinx has a map of projects, The Big Move, the contribution of each element in that plan is unclear. Which ones do the most to reduce congestion, to improve transit network capacity, to support development? Murray would like to see better data on future ridership and ways to measure the potential of various options. The term “evidence based” rolls by, although it is not quite clear what this means as one cannot always have evidence of a plan’s worth until at least part of it is already built.
Minister Murray does not want to just keep up with congestion, he wants to “get ahead of the curve” by choosing and building the most effective elements in a transportation network.
There is no question about the initial Big Move projects for which $16b was committed by the McGuinty government. Those projects are going ahead and are in various stages of engineering and construction. As for the “Next Wave” and beyond, Murray hopes to see improvements that can focus on development potential and good network connections.
That development potential is central to Murray’s views on financing. He is very concerned about asking “middle class” taxpayers who will, for the foreseeable future, be driving their cars and SUVs through suburbia to pay for transportation systems that are underutilized. Bad choices of routes and projects will only undermine a funding strategy.
Vancouver is an important model to him because of that city’s integration of suburban development with transit expansion. However, Murray’s focus on land use planning and whatever success it may have in Vancouver ignores the actual financing. Generous support from various governments, not development charges or tax increments, paid for construction of the Skytrain system.
I asked about the fundamental problem that, thanks to decades of underinvestment, the locations where more capacity is needed may not be those with development potential. Murray acknowledged this, but offered no indication of how to reconcile the situation. Murray sees some locations, such as central Hamilton, as ripe for new development based on transit access, but what will be needed to lure investors to build, and businesses to occupy new space? Others major transit hubs may have very long lead times before development appears around them. Toronto subway terminals are excellent examples in that regard.
Without getting into specifics, Murray wants the Metrolinx Investment Strategy (IS), due June 1, to not simply list many revenue tools, but to show how the money from whatever tools are chosen will produce measurable benefits. Murray sees the IS not simply as an enumeration of options, but an actual plan for how money would be used and the transportation network developed.
So far, there has been much talk about the type of tools (The Metrolinx “Big Conversation”), but much less about what they would build or how new infrastructure would address transportation problems. Indeed, the GTHA has been presented with a preselected list of “Next Wave” projects without any discussion of whether they are appropriate. A review of The Big Move is due in 2016 (and will presumably begin well before that), and none of the Next Wave projects will get underway until the new plan is in place. There is much room for adjustment and improvement rather than treating the choices as a fait accompli.
Murray talks about “innovative technologies”, although it’s not clear just what he means by this. To me, “innovation” is code for “something we don’t have now” and often brings along a snake-oil salesman with a dubious product that will “solve all our problems”.
Murray is impressed by the Vancouver system and its use of elevated structures, and was surprised at the resistance to this sort of construction in Toronto. I recounted the history of the SRT and of proposals to build elevated guideways and stations on various streets in the city including Eglinton. There is a huge difference between an elevated running on a rail or hydro corridor with stations on overpasses (such as the SRT Midland Station), and a line running down the middle of a road like Eglinton Avenue. The issue has always been that each technology fits in certain circumstances, and some are more adaptable to a variety of building styles than others. I couldn’t help noticing that Murray did not say anything about LRT systems such as in Calgary and many other cities.
Murray observed that discussions about transit often decline into arguments about specific technologies (the whole subway vs LRT vs BRT debate). I have found that terms like “innovation” and “flexibility” as applied to transit technologies usually mean “my technology is better than yours”, but preempt discussion by asserting an inherent superiority simply because something is new or is more easily implemented on a network designed around its strengths. Oddly enough, when I talk of the “flexibility” of LRT, the result is often a blank stare or a lecture on how BRT will save the known universe. Terms are often what we choose to make of them. I am not sure whether these are simply buzzwords for Murray, or have some specific, measurable meaning in network analysis.
The Union-Pearson Express (UPX) project is well underway, and there is no question that it will be completed to its original design — an express, premium fare service — for its planned opening in late 2014. (After our meeting, the Minister was off to a groundbreaking at the future Airport terminal.) However, Murray sees this as an example of a line that can be rethought with electrification for 2017 and better integration with the overall regional network as well.
On the Waterfront, Murray spoke of development possibilities east of the Don River in south Riverdale and beyond that might be served/stimulated by some sort of “people mover” to downtown. That sort of statement sends up a red flag for me simply because it’s a “solution” that defines an orphan line and may, at best, only fit into some decades-future plan for the waterfront rather than serving today’s needs. What this means for any future LRT network into the East Bayfront and beyond to the Port Lands remains to be seen.
What Are Corridors For?
Metrolinx already owns some of the rail corridors in the GTHA and the hydro lines are also in the public realm. Could these be used not just as today for commuter rail and power transmission, but also for new transit services — transit on hydro lands, local as well as express service on rail corridors? This topic interests Murray, but his thoughts don’t appear to be well advanced on this.
One major problem, especially if we bring road corridors into the mix, is that these lands are by their very nature hostile to pedestrians and to transit-based development in the immediate vicinity. This is the classic gaffe of thinking that an available right-of-way is a “solution” without properly defining the problem it is to address. That said, there is more to be had from some corridors than their present use. The challenge is to avoid having the corridor locations override the actual transportation needs of travellers in the GTHA.
By this point in our chat, we had already run over time, and the Minister’s next meeting was knocking at the door. As I prepared to leave, I asked one last question about where Murray thought Metrolinx governance should go. The organization started out with some degree of public visibility through a political board, but then retreated into a closed shop where only basic decisions, already arrived at in private, are ratified in public.
Murray replied that he would like to see a “competency based” board with people who have a real passion, knowledge and interest in transportation, and that discussions should be more public. He cited Waterfront Toronto’s board (another agency that reports, provincially, through him) as a good mix of people with an interest in and knowledge of their portfolio.
We shall see where this outlook takes Metrolinx in the future.
A number of questions I had prepared went unasked due to time constraints, but I plan to send them to Glen Murray’s office to continue the discussion. These include several related to local transit financing and the integration of local services with Metrolinx regional operations and planning.
As I walked back out onto Wellesley Street, I had mixed feelings about our conversation. On one hand, Murray’s desire to see Metrolinx put more flesh on its plans – to convert a cafeteria menu of transit lines cobbled together from many local wish lists to a truly integrated plan with defined outcomes and benefits – is long overdue. There is an “Emperor’s New Clothes” feeling about a lot of Metrolinx’ work, and the sense that what we will get is a lot less impressive than what we are promised.
However, some of Murray’s comments about technologies and financing put him uncomfortably close to the Ford camp of transit planning where vague ideas and ideologies supplant detail. Moreover, we risk talking about the network of 2050 without recognizing the need for better travel options in 2015, and of financing that depends on development that might not materialize in our lifetime. I don’t think that’s what Murray intends, but that’s how he sounds a bit too often for comfort.
On the bright side, Murray does not want to stop the work already underway. Toronto has seen far too much delay. I mentioned that many years ago, in the spring of 1990, I attended an announcement by then-Premier David Peterson of the rapid transit network that would blanket Toronto with subways. Peterson lost an election soon after to Bob Rae, who in turn lost to Mike Harris five years later. All we got was the Sheppard line to Don Mills. Ontario is very good at not building.
That is not the intention of the self-styled “new” government at Queen’s Park. Whether they get the chance to deliver on their promises depends on political calculations much bigger than those of The Big Move, and on the government’s will to stay with transit and transportation as essential parts of investing in the GTHA.