With much talk about “new revenue tools” and debates over the least objectionable way to extract $2-billion or more from taxpayers in southern Ontario, the actual purpose of the Metrolinx “Investment Strategy” has faded into the background. Somehow the act of collecting all that money has become more important than figuring out what, exactly, we are going to do with it.
But, you say, don’t we have the Quick Wins? The Big Seven? The Second Wave? Shovels are in the ground and all we need is the will to spend!
Things are not quite that simple.
What we do not have is a clear sense of what we will achieve and when we will achieve it. In 2008 Metrolinx produced The Big Move, our regional transportation plan with two very broad objectives — a 15 and a 25 year plan. Demand projections, including a vision of what traffic and transit might look like, only considered the fully-built 25-year plan, something we already know will not be finished (if ever) within the projected time span.
Some projects received a “Benefits Case Analysis”, but these studies considered each line in isolation rather than looking at what subsets of the whole plan would contribute to the network. Indeed, the biggest “benefit” of many lines would be the money spent to build them, not their contribution to transit overall. This would follow the tradition of transit projects in the GTHA as economic and job stimulus packages first, with transportation improvements as an afterthought.
An “Investment Strategy” is not simply a matter of figuring out where new revenues might be found, but of recommending the best way to use them, to “invest” in the future of the region.
What Is Metrolinx For?
To put this discussion in context, it’s useful to look back at the legislation that defines Metrolinx’ purpose, the Metrolinx Act.
Duties of Corporation re leadership in transportation integration
6. (1) In carrying out its objects … the Corporation shall,
(a) develop and adopt a transportation plan for the regional transportation area and plan, co-ordinate and set priorities for its implementation;
(b) fund, or arrange and manage the funding for, integrated transportation across the regional transportation area;
(c) promote and facilitate co-ordinated decision-making and investment in the regional transportation area among the governments of the municipalities in the regional transportation area and the federal and provincial governments in order to ensure the efficient and cost-effective resolution of matters of shared concern respecting transportation, including,
(i) the provision and the optimal use and location of transportation infrastructure, including highway and transit infrastructure,
(ii) the integration of transportation infrastructure, including highway and transit infrastructure, and
(iii) the integration of routes, fares and schedules of the regional transit system and of local transit systems in the regional transportation area; and
(d) promote the safety, efficiency and protection of transportation corridors.
32.1 On or before June 1, 2013, the Corporation shall provide the Minister and the heads of the councils of the municipalities in the regional transportation area with a copy of the Corporation’s investment strategy, including proposals for revenue generation tools that may be used by the province or the municipalities to support the implementation of the transportation plan for the regional transportation area.
In section 6, funding is only one part of a longer list of duties assigned to Metrolinx, and in section 32.1, revenue tools are to be included in the Investment Strategy. This is an important distinction because the IS should not just be about revenue, but about how it will be spent and the benefits in will bring.
If all we wanted was a list of revenue tools, that could have been provided five years ago when the first shopping list appeared on a Metrolinx board agenda. A “final” version of the IS was to be approved in October 2008, but this was not to be. Those intervening months brought an international banking crisis and ended the bold, forward-looking stance of Ontario on transit projects just as The Big Move was published. We have not fully recovered from that delay.
In the original draft Investment Strategy, Metrolinx and Queen’s Park expected a 1/3 funding share to come from Ottawa. This was a foolhardy assumption then, and it remains so today. Yes, there is some infrastructure money in the federal budget, but the GTHA’s share would not pay for 1/3 of The Big Move, let alone other backlogged infrastructure needs. Ottawa prefers to announce transit support on a project basis, city by city, rather than simply handing over a guaranteed revenue stream for decades to come.
If Ontario, if the GTHA cannot afford The Big Move without federal dollars, then we need a “Plan B”. With the scale of new revenues now pegged at $2b-plus annually, it is clear that building the plan takes precedence even if we have to pay for the whole thing out of our provincial and municipal pockets. Any help from Ottawa will be “found money”.
Where Is The Big Move?
According to the Metrolinx website, they “anticipate” that a progress report “will be complete by early 2013”. It is now almost April.
The Quick Wins
Back in the 2008 budget, there was a grab-bag of “Quick Win” projects totalling $744m:
- Bolton GO park-and-ride
- Durham BRT
- Halton BRT
- Hamilton A and B Lines
- Mississauga Dundas and Hurontario Corridors
- Pearson Airport/Renforth Gateway
- Toronto Yonge-University-Spadina Subway Capacity Improvements
- York-VIVA BRT, Yonge and Highway 7 Corridors
- Plus: BikeLinx ($5M)
A major chunk of that total was the subway “capacity improvements” consisting of signalling upgrades on the original Yonge line that are still underway. That capacity won’t actually be available until much more is spent on the entire YUS and the fleet is expanded to operate more frequent service. Hardly a “quick win”, but it sounded good at the time. I will leave it to readers to contemplate what has been delivered for the remaining items.
The Big 7 and The First Wave
Back in 2008, analysis was underway for seven major projects:
- Eglinton Crosstown Rapid Transit
- Finch West Rapid Transit
- Scarborough Rapid Transit (upgrade and extension)
- Sheppard East Rapid Transit
- “SuperGO” Lakeshore East and West electrification
- York-VIVA Highway 7 and Yonge Street (full build)
- Yonge Subway Extension north to Richmond Hill
We all know just how far this list has progressed. Finch and Sheppard, originally expected to open over the next few years, were pushed back to the end of the decade thanks to provincial spending cuts. The Scarborough RT project is merged with the Eglinton line, but has been deferred, and may yet morph into a full “Scarborough Subway” depending on the ebb and flow of political tides. The Yonge extension to Richmond Hill is on the back burner now that Metrolinx and the TTC have decided the riders won’t fit on the existing subway network. And electrification? Maybe in 2017, maybe, but only from Union to the Airport.
Over the last five years, the list of active projects has changed and we now have “The First Wave”. According to the bigmove.ca website, the following projects are underway:
- Toronto-York Spadina Subway Extension
- Union Pearson Express
- York Region vivaNext Rapidways
- Eglinton Crosstown LRT
- Mississauga Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) Project
- Scarborough Rapid Transit (RT) Extension
- Finch West Light Rail Transit (LRT)
- Georgetown South Project
- Sheppard East Light Rail Transit (LRT)
- Union Station – Train Shed Revitalization
Many of these projects were not in the earlier lists and they were proceeding independently of The Big Move and its funding. Ontario has still not confirmed that these will all be built using general revenues as originally promised and without recourse to the income from the new revenue tools.
The Next Wave
Recently, Metrolinx announced a second wave of transit projects all of which would be funded from the new revenue stream.
- Brampton Queen Street Rapid Transit
- Downtown Relief Line
- Dundas Street Bus Rapid Transit
- Durham-Scarborough Bus Rapid Transit
- GO Rail Expansion
- Electrification of GO Kitchener line and Union Pearson Express
- GO Lakeshore Express Rail Service – Phase 1 (including Electrification)
- Hamilton Rapid Transit
- Hurontario-Main Light Rail Transit
- Yonge North Subway Extension
The Next Wave also includes funding directed to municipalities for local transit (15%), regional highways (5%) and other local projects (5%).
According to the bigmove website:
The first wave of projects all have a completion date of 2031 or earlier and the completion date for the next wave of projects is currently under review.
Considering that The Big Move was a 25-year plan released in 2008, and
2008 + 25 = 2033
this is not exactly spectacular progress. The original plan raised alarms that even with the full buildout over 25 years, the GTHA would at best keep pace with rising transportation demand. When we can’t even finish what we planned, nor have any sense of how much of the problem each phase addresses, drumming up support for new funding may be a challenge.
The original 25-year plan was recently amended, but this primarily reflects timing adjustments and a recognition of the growth in GO Transit’s service territory. What there is no sense of is what a “Third Wave” (or more) will contain or when we can hope to see it.
The original Big Move plan required $50b in funding both for capital, and later for maintenance. This did not include inflation nor did it take into account the additional operating cost and fare subsidies inherent in large-scale growth of the network. That’s where the $2b/year figure originated, but it is hopelessly out of date. How much will it actually buy? We don’t know, and that’s a big question for the Investment Strategy to answer.
Two Men and a Spoon
When the original set of projects was cut back in scope and stretched out to 2020 by Queen’s Park, the claim was made that the construction industry could not absorb all of the work and we had to accept a longer delivery period. In a city filled with construction sites, that was hard to believe, and it’s even harder when we are talking of new revenues of at least $2b/year to fund system expansion.
Is there really a constraint in the industry, or was that a convenient excuse to delay some of Toronto’s proposed LRT lines and push airport service (other than the fair-haired child, the Union-Pearson Express) off into the indefinite future? The airport is one of two major hubs identified by The Big Move, but you would never know this given the sluggish progress toward actually serving both the terminal and the employment area around it.
There is no point in raising billions in new revenue if we cannot actually spend it, and the Investment Strategy must include a staging plan for construction of future projects that either accepts a constrained building environment, or puts that myth to rest once and for all. In particular, if new tools begin generating revenue at the latest by 2015, why should we have to wait until the first wave of projects completes in 2020 before building one more centimetre of transit in the GTHA?
What Should Be In The Investment Strategy?
The debate about transit funding cannot take place in a vacuum. Voters who will be asked to support major new taxes and fees (whatever else they might be called) need to know what they are paying for, when they can ride on it, and what benefits it will bring to their travel. This is the classic formula for selling transit plans and funding elsewhere, notably in Los Angeles which, against all past experience, is now used as a shining example of how to expand a transit system.
Too much of the discussion turns on how we will fill out the map with completed projects, and not enough looks at when we actually need the services. Hand-wringing about, for example, the cost of a Downtown Relief Line (by whatever name) avoids the question of when we need to have it built and open providing new capacity. That’s the kind of argument people now stuck in the jam at Bloor-Yonge can understand, not a vague promise to build a line somewhere, someday. The same applies to long-haul regional services on GO Transit and to improved local transit as feeder routes to the GO backbone.
- What are the timelines for planned rapid transit expansion in the GTHA?
- What rate of spending will be required to support this expansion?
- Should the plans be front-end loaded using medium-term debt to be repaid from future revenues?
- What are the inflationary effects on project costs?
- If federal money is available, how would this be used — to reduce provincial and municipal shares, or to accelerate overall progress?
- How, if at all, will “private sector” funding or financing contribute to the building of transit lines?
- What rationale should be used for division of funding responsibilities with the municipal sector? Why are some projects “regional” and others “local”?
- Is there a constraint in the construction industry that prevents progress beyond a certain level of activity? Is this specific to certain types of project or to construction in general?
- What is the fate of projects beyond the “Next Wave”?
- And finally, what tools should be used to raise the money needed to pay for all of this?
If Metrolinx only talks about revenue tools, but leaves out all the details on what they plan to achieve, then this whole exercise has been a waste of five years. Queen’s Park and everyone in the GTHA who pays the slightest attention to transit have long known what is needed, but lacked the will to champion transit expansion and take the funding question out into the political arena.
Now, with the Board of Trade, Civic Action and others beating the drum for better transit and more transit spending, Metrolinx must abandon its timidity and produce a thorough, realistic plan for transit expansion in the GTHA.