The Metrolinx “Big Conversation”: What are The People Saying?

Through early 2013, Metrolinx conducted roundtables across the GTHA to sound out interested citizens on the transportation plan, “The Big Move”, and on possible ways that this might be funded.  A summary report consolidating the input from each area makes interesting reading.

“Consistent, top-line themes” are identified right at the outset:

Participants across the region feel frustrated with the level of congestion they face on highways, roads and public transit. They feel the negative impact of gridlock on family life, work obligations and health. The inadequacy of existing public transit systems is a common concern for participants. GTHA participants agree that across the region – along its busiest routes – our roads, highways, subways, trains and buses are straining to meet demand.

The need for reliable and frequent service was heard consistently across the GTHA. Participants are looking for leadership among transit providers to collaborate and deliver improved levels of service that is better integrated across the region. Participants look forward to system improvements that will allow them to more easily coordinate their schedules, enjoy a wider range of transit options with less uncertainty and stress, and travel more efficiently and cost-effectively from A to B. [page 3]

A few points leap out here:

  • “Public transit” is a generic problem, not a “GO” or “TTC” or “HSR” issue, and there is no call for a few “magic bullet” solutions.
  • Frequency and reliability rank highly, and would-be riders want to see better co-ordination and service delivery.
  • Efficient and cost-effective travel are important.

A subtle but important linking factor here is that delivering on these issues requires a network approach, and high quality operations are at least as important as building new infrastructure.

The 920 roundtable participants were generally supportive of new “revenue tools”, although to be fair this is a self-selected population.  They have a strong interest in transit plans and were briefed on details of the options and experiences elsewhere in the world.  If the same level of interest and information applied to a larger share of the population, we might see better polling numbers, but there is strong distrust even among participants that new money will go to new transit.


Congestion is a problem across the GTHA, and it affects people over wide areas and at many times of the day and week, not just traditional peak periods.  The road network, once a relative ease to use, has filled and only small disturbances or constraints are needed to push it over the edge.  What this bodes for future traffic from a growing population is not pretty.

Inadequate capacity or frequency on public transit systems is a common concern for participants across the GTHA. Some participants feel there is no motivation to get out of their cars and into transit, because it is overcrowded or underserviced. [page 10]

This is not just a downtown Toronto problem, but one affecting all of the GTHA.  Wide gaps in off-peak service (if it exists at all) limit the trips people can take, and delays threaten reliability.

The question of local service comes up later in the report as an issue for mobility within parts of the region.  Everyone isn’t trying to get to central Toronto, and travel within local municipalities is difficult or impossible for many.


Poorly co-ordinated schedules of various operators and the lack of service guarantees compound the problems of congestion.  Some participants talked of avoiding local systems and driving directly to a GO station to avoid connection issues.  Multiple fares also came in for criticism.

Across the GTHA, participants want a seamless transit system that enables people to travel easily, regardless of destination. [page 11]

Paying for the System

Participants supported GTHA-wide revenue tools (regardless of which were chosen), and some saw the potential for spending outside the GTHA of province-wide revenues.  Benefits should also flow across the region, not just to commuter trips, to widen transit’s reach as a travel option.

Accountability is an important component.  Any new funds must go “directly to construction and results”, and Metrolinx should “clearly define budgets and timelines” and “be accountable for those commitments”. [page 13]

Looking to the World

One observation was particularly striking:

Participants across the GTHA talked about their experiences in cities around the world with high-quality transportation systems. Communities in Europe and the US are touted for being modern, efficient and responsive. Many participants look forward to a transportation system that elicits a similar response from visitors to the GTHA. Some people expressed concern that the GTHA is trailing behind when it comes to transportation, particularly for tourists, seniors, students and businesses. [page 14]

This is a very different context from four decades ago when a transit plan could comprise a few subway lines and some commuter rail (most of which we didn’t build), and Toronto could claim to be a paragon among world transit systems.  People travel.  Over half of our population wasn’t born here and they know what other cities and countries are doing.  Squabbling about small scale improvements and “watching out for the taxpayer” seem to be strangely absent in many world centres cited as examples Toronto should follow.  As a Durham resident put it:

We need to think of transportation as a budget necessity, not a subsidy. [page 14]

Always Politics

Participants expressed reservations that political dynamics might impact long-term plans like The Big Move. They would like assurance that The Big Move is sustainable and has the staying power to surpass changing governments and funding priorities.

Across the GTHA, participants expressed a need for guarantees about the long-term viability of The Big Move. [page 19]

Over the comparatively short life of Metrolinx, we have already seen the role that politics, not to mention shifting economic climates, can do to large scale plans.  What started as a bold move to show people what transit could achieve (the “first wave” of projects) now stretches out to 2021 simply to ensure that Queen’s Park can fit the spending into their constrained budgets.  How this will fare under a new government does not bear contemplating.

The “Next Wave” is little more than a shopping list, and there is no sense from Metrolinx of project costs or staging, and how these will relate to the new revenue stream.  Uncertainty makes for an easy political target when supporters can’t point to specifics, and critics can cite previous delays as counterexamples.

Regional Views

Many themes emerged from the regional meetings:

  • The lack of integration between local transit systems, and with GO Transit, conflicting schedules and infrequent service work against people trying to get around their region.
  • Links between systems should be seamless.
  • Local service must be improved and it must expand with growing communities.
  • Transit is important in keeping seniors active.
  • Service to and from Toronto needs to be a bi-directional, all-day, 7-day operation to serve a wider variety of trip types.
  • Frequency and reliability provide greater flexibility for riders to plan their schedules.
  • Overcrowding makes transit unattractive and uncomfortable.
  • Both quantity and quality of transit service need improvement to lure people out of their cars.
  • Better transit can reduce dependence on auto travel.
  • The lag between announcements and service should be reduced — improvements should be delivered faster.
  • Improved capacity into the Toronto core is important both with additional rapid transit, and by improving the use of streets through parking restrictions.

What Lessons for Metrolinx and Queen’s Park?

A pervasive question for any Big Move advocate is whether this network will actually be built, when, and what, really, will it accomplish.  Despite repeated invocation of the $16b worth of projects already underway, there’s not much to show in completed work.

The Big Gap between Metrolinx and many of the participants’ desires lies in the realm of local service.  This is a subject which Metrolinx constantly and forcefully maintained was not part of its mandate ever since its inception.  They were a regional planner, and local service was a municipal affair.  That’s like saying we can plan 400-series highways without considering the local road network to which they will connect.

This position, of course, avoided the delicate problem of Queen’s Park resuming local transit funding, let alone priming the pump to encourage substantial service improvements.  Local systems face continued funding and service cuts just at a time the whole region is talking about the need for more and better transit.

Belatedly, the “Investment Strategy” now includes 25% for a variety of local purposes with 15% going to local transit.  This is a very late addition to the IS, and there is no supporting analysis to establish just how much spending (including local shares) would be required to provide that “last mile” part of regional travel, let alone improve journeys within the regions.

To put the number in context for Toronto, a $2b/yr stream would yield $300m for local transit of which Toronto would be lucky to see half, or $150m.  This is less than half of the TTC’s operating subsidy for 2013.  A further wrinkle is that the funding really shouldn’t just be used to offset an existing municipal expense because that will bring no improvement on the street.  Moreover, it’s unclear whether the new $150m would be offset by an end to the existing $150m Toronto gets from provincial gas tax.  Shell games like this are common in budgets, and Queen’s Park needs to be clear on its intentions.

Outside Toronto, the challenge of improving transit is greater because the 905 regions are starting from a lower established service level and market share.  Getting to a “good” level of transit serving all-day travel will take a big jump in funding.

“Integration” is a term we heard a lot over past years, but in practice much of the effect was to justify the Presto card project.  All that brings is a common payment mechanism, not a common, integrated fare nor a reduction in cross-border tariffs.  As for integrated service, problems remain between local providers and with GO, especially in GO’s avoidance of integration within the 416.

Nowhere in The Big Move have we seen an attempt to address the needs for local travel and the cost of implementing complementary services to the Big Move network.  For too long, the Metrolinx/GO mindset has been to run trains and let the local trips take care of themselves, especially in Toronto where a mature system sits on their doorstep.

This is not an acceptable “regional plan”, and Metrolinx should hasten to bring the supposed benefits of the new funding schemes into line with the type of improvements people identify as their needs.  This will take a change in focus from capital construction to operations and service, not just for Metrolinx routes, but throughout the GTHA.

Will Metrolinx address this challenge, or will they simply announce a preferred list of new taxes and fees, and leave the rest to Queen’s Park?

18 thoughts on “The Metrolinx “Big Conversation”: What are The People Saying?

  1. Steve

    Thank you (again) for this post. As usual you have summarized the issues and points of view very directly and critically.

    I ended up participating in 5 ‘Big Conversation’ roundtables, (Oakville, Mississauga, Brampton, Toronto and Dundas) as well as 2 additional roundtables in Mississauga and talks at the Evergreen Brickworks. I’m also trying to get to the Civic Action forum on April 17.

    I agree that the views expressed by participants (keeping in mind that they are self-selected and in many cases,well-travelled and interested in public transport and urban issues) appear to be consistent throughout the GTHA (also keeping in mind demographic and and social differences and the way the roundtables were set up).

    I definitely agree with your final point about the lack of clear, comprehensive and consistent (not to mention, effective) ‘Local Move’ and ‘Little Move’ plans coming from the municipalities and local transit agencies.

    Conversation with Metrolinx (and local gov’t and transit) representatives suggests that the plans exist but they aren’t being highlighted (just like plans for GO bus expansion are not being highlighted).

    I’m left wondering if the local governments and transit agencies are waiting for a ‘go-ahead’ from Metrolinx or if they are simply going to follow Metrolinx’s lead/direction in everything over the next 10 years.

    Either way, I think we will still have to wait until the revenue tools are determined (and Metrolinx is ‘free’ and ready to move on) before we can go to the next step … working with local transit agencies to evaluate and finalize plans for the ‘Next Wave’ projects.

    Let’s hope everyone is ready when/if that time comes.

    Cheers, Moaz

    Steve: But considering how important local services were to so many participants, this should be part of the “sales package” for new revenue tools. Metrolinx and Queen’s Park shoot themselves in the foot over and over by avoiding discussion of important issues like this.

    If advocates cannot point to concrete improvements that can be implemented within five years and touch people in local neighbourhoods, then it all becomes an exercise in “no new taxes”, and the fight is lost before we begin.


  2. Steve:

    But considering how important local services were to so many participants, this should be part of the “sales package” for new revenue tools. Metrolinx and Queen’s Park shoot themselves in the foot over and over by avoiding discussion of important issues like this.

    If advocates cannot point to concrete improvements that can be implemented within five years and touch people in local neighbourhoods, then it all becomes an exercise in “no new taxes”, and the fight is lost before we begin.

    You’re absolutely right. I was honestly disappointed to see that local transit and local government representatives did not have much of a public presence (although some were there) at the Big Move’ roundtables that I attended. I asked but was told that the reps were ‘at the table’ to which I usually responded ‘why aren’t they at this table?’

    Perhaps the local governments want to secure their own ‘Big Move’ projects (witness Hazel’s call for full funding for the Hurontario-Main LRT and Bob Brantina’s lament about Hamilton being left behind) before they give any more support.

    Metrolinx has started talking up the 1st wave and Next Wave ‘Big Move’ projects that are happening ‘nearby’ but you’re right, there is very little local presence and the local plans (or indeed hubs like Kipling and Renforth … or expanded GO bus service) are not being talked up.

    So, how do we change the narrative?

    Cheers, Moaz


  3. Off-topic, but it may as well go with the most recent discussion. Wouldn’t it be nice if people talked about this?

    Imagine the funding for that.

    Steve: I particularly liked the extension of the No. 10 trolley from Philadelphia to California, and the long-maligned Arborway line to NYC. Of course, taking the Green line up to Montreal gives a whole new meaning to the “Canada” line.


  4. One thing for sure is that it’s all taking waaaaaaaaaaaaay too long to get anything done. I’ll likely be retired before a DRL is built.

    The new subway trains are a good improvement. But why does it have to take a full year of testing to get any of the new streetcars into service? Obviously there have been significant glitches, i.e. the St. Clair boarding height mismatch. Nonetheless, a year is too long. It’s not a lunar mission. A couple months should be long enough to get some of them running on some routes where they can be tested under everyday, typical-use condition.

    Oh and I’ve noticed a lot of the lighted maps in the new subway trains aren’t working already.

    Steve: A “significant” glitch is something that prevents the cars from operating at all. The situation on St. Clair is minor, and has been whipped into a political storm by the typically ill-informed journalism of the Toronto Sun. All that needs to be changed is that some platforms will have to be slightly raised or lowered, and then only at the location beside where the accessible ramp would be deployed. The Sun and certain councillors would prefer to make this look like a boondoggle.

    A year? Well, delivery of the first prototype was delayed in part by interference in the contract by the Mayor’s office, as I understand things, that brought work at Thunder Bay to a halt. The intent is to have production cars start arriving in fall 2013 after enough testing of the prototypes to establish any fixes that need to be included on the main run of vehicles. Better this than having a potload of retrofits.

    Subway car route maps? I really don’t understand why these are not implemented as video screens, but there was a whole debate about video advertising for this car order.


  5. “That’s like saying we can plan 400-series highways without considering the local road network to which they will connect.”

    Funny, that’s *exactly* what MTO does. (407 eastward extension, for example…)


  6. Are the new revenue tools needed to build the 4 LRT lines (of which only the Eglinton Crosstown is currently under construction), or are these being funded by provincial debt and taxes? (For the Sheppard LRT only, I understand the city, the federal government and the province are each contributing 1/3 of the cost.)

    Steve: The Eglinton (Weston to Kennedy), SRT (Kennedy to Sheppard), Sheppard East (Don Mills to Morningside) and Finch West (Keele to HUmber College) projects are all supposed to be funded out of the original $16m pot for the first wave. Within this, there is $300m of federal money for Sheppard, but the rest of the LRT projects are 100% Ontario money with no city contribution.

    For details on the first wave projects, please refer to the Big Move website.

    The $16b isn’t all provincial money because another big project in that pot is the Spadina extension which is 1/3 provincial, 1/3 federal and 1/3 municipal (split roughly 60/40 between Toronto and York Region) on a total budget of $2.6b.

    The new revenue is supposed to pay for additional projects beginning with the “next wave” list which does not include any additional Toronto LRT lines, but does include the DRL and Richmond Hill subways. There is no staging plan for these projects, and Metrolinx has given no sense of whether construction would be constrained to “pay as you play”, or if debt financing would allow more capital spending up front.


  7. I thought the $8+ billion post of money for Sheppard, Finch, Eglinton, Scarborough, and VIVA was divided into two 5-year terms, with the assumption going way back to “5 in 10” that the 2016-2020 money (years 6 to 10) would be coming out of the new revenue tools, and this was the reason that Metrolinx pushed back a lot of work from 2010-2015 to 2016-2020, so as to get the debt off the books. Though I guess it would take a detailed look at the provincial budget papers to ascertain that.

    Steve: Nope, Metrolinx has always claimed that the entire $16b is already “funded” separately from the revenue tools. If they back away from that and burn up the first five years of “new” revenue paying for stuff that was already “committed”, they won’t have a leg to stand on.


  8. For $25.6 billion & a 2018 completion date, London gets the Crossrail line. [See also Wikipedia]

    Steve: At the current exchange rate, it’s only C$22.94b (£14.8b). However, Crossrail is hugely different from Toronto projects.

    The line is 118km of which 42km is in new tunnels. A large proportion of the route runs on existing surface rail corridors that will be upgraded to handle the additional traffic and longer trains.

    At opening, the line will run with 10-car trains, 1500 passengers each, and there is provision for expansion to 12-car trains. Service on the common portion of the route (which has branches at both ends) will be 24 trains/hour or a headway of 150 seconds. Outer ends of the route get down to 4 trains/hour.

    There are 37 stations making the average spacing (over 3km) considerably wider than on the TTC/Metrolinx lines, although shorter than on GO Transit. This allows a higher operating speed. The 9 underground stations are being designed as showpieces, not as bare-bones Toronto-style bathrooms where any hint of extra cost is decried as a waste of taxpayer money. The underground section will add about 10% to the rail transit capacity in central London, and that figure should give an indication of what already exists.

    Crossrail should not be compared to Eglinton because the UK project is more a regional rail line (somewhat like the grander plans GO has talked about at times) than a local transit line. The use of existing infrastructure brings the cost way below what would be faced for all-new construction.


  9. Steve, I have a question and don’t really want to look for the details in your prior blog posts.

    We’ve been hearing news about construction of the Eglinton Crosstown LRT beginning. Tunnel boring machines are already in place at Eglinton and Black Creek. My question is involving these machines, are they the same size as those that were used to tunnel the Spadina Subway? I’m only asking as I’m curious about the line’s potential to be upgraded to a subway should the need arise. I believe the Core section of the line from Jane to Don Mills should be a subway given the greater ridership in that section compared to the Spadina Subway line. And this is the line that will be integrated with the Scarborough RT, correct? Any details on the schedule for that?

    Steve: The Eglinton tunnels are actually bigger than the Spadina tunnels. However, conversion to full subway would face problems with other geometric constraints, not to mention the problem that platforms (and associated escalators and elevators) would be at the wrong height for high-platform subway cars.

    As for the SRT, the idea of through-routing Eglinton and SRT service was dropped over a year ago. They will run as separate lines (with higher service on the SRT where greater demand is expected), but a track connection will exist for carhouse moves. Construction is supposed to start on the extension to Sheppard in 2014, and the SRT itself will close in fall 2015. Metrolinx says it will all be open “by 2020”, but they also hope to see proposals from PPP bidders on this work that would keep the shutdown period below 3 years.


  10. Thanks for the update. If the TTC is smart, they will create ramps from the escalators/elevators to the lower level that the LRTs require. The TTC and other city services have received a lot of flak for building on the fly without foresight or anything, look at the ongoing construction going on at St. Clair, and other construction areas where the road is always torn up after it is finished.

    If the Eglinton and SRT services are due to terminate at Kennedy, what’s to stop the TTC from running a through service with additional short turns on the SRT portion? Again, if the TTC is smart with its planning, there should be turn back loops/sidings at both ends of the station. I’m just not entirely comfortable seeing such a complex station being built in that fashion.

    Steve: It is the TTC who wanted the design changed to two separate routes without interlining. As for the stations, it’s no TTC who is designing them but Metrolinx, and any of the drawings so far show the elevator/escaltor landings flush with the low-floor platform.


  11. The last detailed engineering documents for Kennedy Station I viewed showed a complete two-track connection between the SRT and Eglinton lines even without the intention of through-routing. (It also protected for a connection running eastward that wouldn’t be attached in the beginning.) Do you know if they still plan on protecting these connections in the event they choose to use them or will it be reduced to a simpler non-revenue junction like was depicted at the connection with Sheppard?

    Steve: What you describe sounds like the last version I’ve seen, and I don’t know how the design has evolved since then.


  12. About just getting rid of Metrolinx all together and let the local transit plan there transit. Then the MPP do their job of funding it, instead of hiding behind Metrolinx. I can’t believe the money Metrolinx is spending to advertise all the new transit construction across the GTA.


  13. I added the Crossrail link out of frustration with the situation here in Toronto. It is refreshing to see something actually being built for a change.

    Come 2018, if, Crossrail is completed on time, it will be interesting to compare what Metrolinx will have delivered.

    I heard on the news yesterday, that, the pricetag on the work needed to fix the Gardiner has already risen by $19 million, where is the Sun and it’s ballistic diatribe on mounting costs?


  14. I think Metrolinx is facing the consequences of a breach of trust. When did they start talking about GO electrification? A billion years ago? When are they going to put money into it? Never?

    This is similar to a problem the TTC faces: they promised that exclusive right-of-way on Spadina would give the sort of reliable service which it gives everywhere else in the world, but failure to actually dispatch streetcars on headways means that it doesn’t. It is a breach of trust.

    This is also similar to what the federal government has done with the “high speed rail studies” — have you seen the satiric video talking about how excellent Canada is at writing (but not implementing) studies? It’s another breach of trust.

    The result is that when people are asked what they think of a plan, the response is generally “We don’t believe you’re ever going to build anything, let alone listen to us.” This is an *appropriate* response given the history.

    Result: in order to gain public trust, Metrolinx should probably go ahead and build at least one of the things it promised early on. Personally, I suggest GO electrification, as it would save money on operations, allow better acceleration, and be an environmental improvement. You know what TTC needs to do to gain public trust — manage to dispatch streetcars on reliable headways. And the federal government … well, anyway.


  15. For further comparisons, the UK is now embarking on a project of electrifying most of its unelectrified railway lines — more kilometers than we can imagine. Using a semi-automated “electrification train”.

    It puts North America to shame.


  16. I have noticed small strange items.

    (1) I have to drive along 401 to most-eastern Oshawa from time to time and I am checking positioning of the signals along the railway tracks – both two-track and four-track sections. East of the city the signals are of the type of single lens, where colour is changed internally, whereas within the city GO/Metrolinx/CN have changed the signals to little boxes and each colour has its own little bulb. Here is the kicker: The block sections from Oshawa to Pickering are about 1000m long, whereas within the city limits the block sections became much longer, especially due to a removal of a signal at Main Street. Given the fact that some European railway companies are trying to proceed to 500m-long sections, we have just bent backwards towards lower train capacity.

    (2) We as society talk about increasing capacity of the GO network; however we do very little about it or do very little in protecting physical space that may be required in the future. Examples:

    (a) It looks like someone is trying to build new houses on the S/W corner of Scarb. Golf Club Rdd and CN tracks where there are only some shrubs at present – that is, new houses will be nearer (or very near) to the tracks.

    (b) Someone is proposing and most probably accepting deposits for future development in the triangle of St. Clair East/Midland Ave./CN(GO) tracks. Why would someone do that or allow it, if there is not enough area to expand existing GO parking lot and we (as society) would like to attract more GO riders?


  17. Chris Selley’s take from the National Post today,

    “Ms. Wynne talks about an “opinion gap” between those who believe we need new transit and those who think we need new money to pay for it. But there is a massive trust gap here, too. Many people simply don’t trust this government, or indeed government in general, to build projects this big and expensive without massively buggering them up.

    In an afternoon panel on this subject, Toronto’s Chief Planner Jennifer Keesmaat made a valid point that we live in a thriving city and region that self-evidently does a lot of things right. But the provincial Liberals’ signature scandals — eHealth, ORNGE, the gas plants — do not pertain to rocket science, but to bedrock issues of oversight, good governance and ethics.

    I’m all for paying for transit, and the Liberals are the only ones with a realistic plan to build. But they do not deserve to be trusted with $50-billion. Yet the successor to Dalton McGuinty, of all people, is basically asking Ontarians to roll the dice and give it to her anyway. If it works, they’ll have to write some new political strategy textbooks.”

    Steve: And I am sure that all the critics of new transit spending have some wonderful alternative way we should approach these problems. The challenge for Wynne & Co. is to establish trust, not an easy job, but I have no faith in the Tories, and shaky faith (dare I say trust) that the NDP would aim as high as I would like to see. We have a brief chance to work for a strong funding model, and if we lose this, I don’t want to hear anyone complain about problems getting around southern Ontario ever again.


  18. I think you are grossly trivializing the Ontario Liberal Party’s record. Mocking Ford’s lack of leadership for pretending to vomit in a scrap of political theater while chalking up Wynne’s problems (did I say $85 million? Make it $275 million, at least) to a “trust issue” frankly is galling. And to those who suggest that we should accept “leaders” that cynically wasted millions of taxpayer money to buy a couple of seats on threat of losing whatever “progress” has been made on the Big Move to them I say, “I’ll take the congestion, thanks.”

    Steve: I am not trivializing the OLP’s record, and have watched sadly as McGuinty frittered away a good start with strong commitment to transit to a point where he was afraid to move on the issue. The messes he allowed to build around him, some thanks to an idiotic fascination with the so-called benefits of the private sector, some just to appallingly bad political judgement, almost wrecked what should have been a good start for transit. If Wynne isn’t able to proceed, I very strongly doubt we will see much from the NDP, and we already know we will see almost nothing from the Tories. So if you just want to stew in traffic rather than giving folks a chance to turn things around, be my guest.


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