After Metrolinx produced its report on revenue sources that might fund their regional plan, The Big Move, the whole thing was turned over to a newly created panel by Queen’s Park to review the options.
One of the most damning statements about the depths to which Toronto has fallen appears in the Introduction:
Toronto used to be considered a transit system leader and all levels of government made bold investments to earn that reputation. We are reaping the benefits of those investments to this day, as a city, region, province, and country.
The Toronto region now ranks as the worst performer in Canada in moving people to and from work and is near the bottom of global rankings.
That’s what happens to a city that rests on a decades-old reputation for its transit network. Toronto was spared some of the worst effects of hollowed-out downtowns thanks to postwar immigration and a robust local economy, but this masked deeper problems with the lack of investment in mobility around the city and region. The central city, the one in all the tourist posters, prospered while gradually the suburbs strangled in traffic.
Debates about transit plans and funding are mired in misconceptions about what can and should be done, and the Hard Truths paper is intended to reset the discussion. Whether the panel will be successful in their aim given the highly polarized political context remains to be seen.
These are hard truths, but until we accept them, we will not be able to have a mature discussion. Decisions will not be based on reason and evidence, but will be one-off decisions aimed at short term political gain.
The six truths are:
- Subways are not the only good form of transit.
- Transit does not automatically drive development.
- The cost of building transit is not the main expense.
- Transit riders are not the only beneficiaries of new infrastructure.
- Transit expansion in the region is not at a standstill.
- We can’t pay for the region-wide transit we need by cutting waste in government alone.
Subways are only one mode of many
… the truth is that an effective and sustainable public transit network depends on matching the technology to the circumstances.
Recent debates have presumed that the only valid transit project is a subway, but the panel argues that other modes including LRT and BRT have their place. Indeed each project should use the mode appropriate to its demand. The surface bus and streetcar network is an integral and vital part of the TTC, and the streetcars alone carry more riders than the entire GO network.
That said, the panel seems to downplay both local transit and commuter rail in their shopping list of modes and funding requirements. Whether they will turn to the issue of GO vs subway as a means of carrying riders into the core in a future report? Will they address the need to fund local transit throughout the GTA which is essential providing riders for the GO system?
A chart describing the characteristics of each mode shows the Calgary LRT system, and notes that “LRTs are very popular in European and US cities, as well as in Calgary, Edmonton and Ottawa.” Well, in Ottawa to the point that there are plans to build one. Who knows what that project’s fate will be until we actually see cars running with real passengers? This is Ontario, after all, where more projects are cancelled than built.
Will the public and politicians accept that a transit network does not have to be 100% subway? Will plans develop based on pandering for electoral advantage, or based on what the region and province actually need and can afford?
Transit and development
The classic aerial photo of Toronto shows office and apartment towers clustered around subway stations, and the TTC is proud to take credit for how it built the city. Great publicity, but hardly true. Many subway stations are surrounded by low-density development with little sign of change. Some of these are established residential areas, others are commercial/industrial lands that, so far, have not proved attractive to developers.
The evidence shows that you cannot just build transit anywhere and hope commercial development will follow. While access to rapid transit is a catalyst for development, it is only one factor.
Transit should be built to serve existing and likely development areas, according to the panel, and one cannot simply wish development into existence by drawing lines on a map.
This position stands the received wisdom about transit planning on its head. Back in the 70s, there was much fine talk about “transit oriented development” and building a network to shape the growing city. What actually happened was that the city and region grew more or less as it wanted to, and in a very car-oriented form. Two major nodes, Yorkdale and Scarborough Town Centre, exist because that’s where developers had property, but little was actually constructed around the new rapid transit lines beyond two shopping malls and acres of parking.
Another important issue is the question of “neighbourhoods” and what constitutes “urban” growth. Just because you have a new condo or office tower doesn’t mean that there is a neighbourhood. Can you walk to a convenience store? Is there a bar, coffee shop, cafe nearby as an informal neighbourhood hub? Some of the real hubs in suburbia are the old strip malls with small shops and local, not chain, owner/operators. These tend to be forgotten in many plans, but they are as important as the shiny new buildings.
Transit costs more than just infrastructure
For as long as I can remember, transit capital projects existed as much as means of stimulating the construction industry and, possibly, increasing land values, as they did to actually improve the transit network. We hear at least as much about the economic activity created by construction as about what might happen once a line actually opens. (The Metrolinx Benefits Case Analysis methodology even rewards high-cost projects by factoring in the trickle-down effect of all that spending even though it could be more productively be redirected.)
Transit lines, once built, must bear both the debt service cost for the capital investment and the operating and maintenance cost of keeping the lines running. This is more than half of the total life-cycle cost especially for the less capital-intensive modes. However, funding debates look mainly at capital construction without considering the future expense of owning and operating the network.
One debate that Metrolinx has hinted at, but has not produced anything concrete for, is the balance between “pay as you play” and debt financing. If we only build what we can afford on a year-to-year basis, we will wait decades for some transit projects to appear, and some will always be crowded out by a new priority. If we build quickly and on a large scale, we will require debt that must be financed through future revenues that might be used for different purposes. This is a perennial political debate about what constitutes “responsible” spending and the degree to which we mortgage our future. The more positive outlook calls this “investment”.
One way or the other, all of this transit has to be paid for, and a funding scheme that ignores future costs is at best half a solution. Moreover, the transit network as a whole is not just the new lines, but all of the existing infrastructure and service that must be operated, maintained and expanded. Without this, the new lines would sit as jewels surrounded by rusting tracks and buses, and passengers would complain that service was no better than before all that “investment”.
What’s in it for me?
This point speaks to the potential taxpayer who complains that all this new transit won’t help them because they can’t use the services it will provide. The same could be said of many investments: highways, sewers, power lines that are scaled for industrial and commercial use; schools that educate a future workforce; social services that care for the less fortunate.
Oddly enough, the simple fact that Queen’s Park is looking at transit-specific revenue tools brings out this discussion more than the large sums raised for many purposes through general revenues. Metrolinx already receives $2b/year for its capital programs, but this is buried in the overall budget. Voters clamour for more transit without asking where the money will come from.
The main advantage of any transportation infrastructure – anything from a footpath up to an expressway – is that it enables movement and economic activity. This can be as simple as a walk to the corner store, or as massive as a highway full of commuters and transports. Without that ability to move around, the entire region suffers including the taxpayer who thinks he gets nothing from all that spending.
I will get down off of my soap box now.
This argument strays into the political arena and may be a harder sell in some parts of the GTHA. Much depends on the perception that there is something for everyone even if they have to wait a while for their turn to come. The absence of a project priority list and spending plan from Metrolinx, coupled with Queen’s Park’s preference to defer rather than to actually build, leaves people wondering if their new taxes will simply vanish into a black hole. That’s the credibility problem Metrolinx and the Transit Panel face.
Nothing is happening!
If we’ve heard it once, we’ve heard it a thousand times: $16b worth of investment is underway in the GTHA. Well, yes, sort of.
The laundry list of “first wave” Metrolinx projects is sprinkled around the region, and a large chunk of that $16b has yet to be actually spent. A new government could simply say “enough” and cap their costs at under 50% of this total, a tactic that is likely if the Tories get control based on past experience. Queen’s Park really needs to accelerate its spending so that we will have something to show for those claims including:
- Building the Sheppard and Finch LRT lines.
- Finding a way to open the Eglinton line in stages so that we see benefits within our lifetimes for the cost and upheaval.
- Advancing improvements in GO Transit especially in the Georgetown corridor where so much work has been done to add capacity. There is more to this corridor than the Union-Pearson Express, although one would be hard-pressed to tell from the focus of Metrolinx publicity.
- Supporting improvements in local transit systems and fare integration with GO.
The Transit Panel’s report also lists improvements outside of the “first wave” including new and expanded GO operations funded out of its regular subsidy stream. The artificial separation between “Big Move” projects and general transit improvements needs to end – it’s all the same pot of money.
The panel warns:
These improvements are a good start after decades of deferred expansion, maintenance and renewal. But the transit infrastructure spending shortfall is enormous and it is placing major demands on present and future municipal budgets.
That stress on municipal budgets is already seen in Toronto and elsewhere with limited expansion of existing systems, hardly the way to show a priority for travel by transit in coming decades.
Gravy won’t pay for transit
There is a mythology among those who would see taxes cut further and the scope of government reduced that everything we want can be paid for simply by “eliminating waste”. This premise has been debunked by, among other things, the Drummond Report into provincial finances, but the argument is a simplistic one with an appeal to those who distrust government to do anything useful. On a subtler note, a campaign against waste diverts attention from the real issues of decaying infrastructure and the need for renewal and expansion in transit and other areas.
When the debate sits at the level of “they’re all incompetent crooks”, nothing is done. This perception isn’t helped when, in fact, very little seems to be happening anyhow on a timeframe people can appreciate.
We are unlikely to get beyond this rhetoric from the Fords and Hudaks of the world, and the real need is for transit champions in senior parts of the government and society. Sound familiar? This needs leadership right from the top, not just from well-meaning activists in the trenches building support one community at a time.
Where do we go from here?
“Hard Truths” is the first of three discussion papers the Transit Investment Panel will produce as background to a series of public meetings (dates and locations not yet announced). Future papers will address “The Transit We Need” and “How We Pay For Transit Expansion”.
This process will lead to recommendations that should feed into the 2014-15 budget at Queen’s Park and, possibly, a provincial election. These are not trivial issues, and consultation has to really listen, not simply seek support for an already-decided outcome as so much of Metrolinx’ work has done.