Don’t Just Fund Transit, Build Transit

Back in December, the advisory panel reviewing the Metrolinx Investment Strategy released its report recommending a number of revenue generation tools and showing how these could support an accelerated construction plan for many transit improvements.  As background to this proposal, I asked for details on how the panel had worked out the spending pattern and the project timing.  Recently, this information was forwarded to me.

What is most interesting about this paper is the chart showing project timing and spending on page 4.  The projects include:

  • Upgrades to GO Transit for all day service on the Milton, Barrie, Richmond Hill, Stouffville and Georgetown-Kitchener corridors;
  • Electrification of the UPX to Pearson Airport;
  • LRT lines on Hurontario-Main and in Hamilton;
  • BRT for Dundas Street and Durham-Scarborough;
  • An unspecified rapid transit line for Brampton Queen Street;
  • The Relief Subway line plus partial extension of the Yonge line.

The work is spread over 2015-25 with peak spending in the years 2017-21.  The annual expenditures are not constrained by the size of the income stream because bridge financing would be used.  This would carry the program through to the later years when revenue would be used to pay down debt rather than to fund current construction.

What is so striking about this plan is that the goal is to build transit as quickly as reasonably possible, not to hamstring construction work with hand wringing about the amount of each year’s spending allocation from Queen’s Park.  Much of the hope vested in The Big Move was lost thanks to the extended delivery times for projects which, in turn, were dictated by the abject fear of financing the work with new revenues.  A bold plan was neutered by the McGuinty Liberals’ terror of criticism by the “no new taxes” brigade.

It’s all well to point to a list of “funded projects”, but if the delivery dates for construction and completion drift off into the future, the funding announcements are just so much toilet paper.

Overall construction time for each project is sourced from the Metrolinx Investment Strategy. However, the capacity to deliver these projects as outlined has not been factored into schedule development – the Panel’s proof of concept deliberately advances Next Wave projects to begin construction faster than currently anticipated and after the design period is complete. [Page 1]

That phrase “capacity to deliver” brings me to one of Metrolinx’ favourite excuses for an extended rollout schedule – a claim that the construction industry cannot possibly do so much work in so short a time.  That fails on several counts notably that the original Big Move, unconstrained by a spending slowdown ordered by Queen’s Park, planned a $2-billion annual outlay (plus inflation) over 25 years, a period we would be well into by now but for Queen’s Park’s reticence.

A great deal of the work outlined here would be underway and completed before the end of the “first wave” of Big Move projects.  This shows the effect of more aggressive planning where providing service is the primary goal rather than dragging out spending.  If a similar approach had been taken sooner, we could be riding new transit services in the next few years, not hearing over and over about a handful of projects such as the Spadina extension that have been in the pipeline for quite a long time.

Metrolinx staff are supposed to be reviewing the timing of at least the Sheppard LRT project with a view to beginning this earlier.  In the current political situation, with the  Scarborough subway/LRT debate heating up again, it is hard to know whether Metrolinx will even have the backbone to discuss a speedup of the Sheppard line publicly.

This shows everything that is wrong with that supposedly independent agency – policy debates, “what if” discussions never take place in public, presuming that they take place at all.  This might embarrass politicians and show voters what options would actually cost, and how soon they new services could be available, if only we had the collective will to proceed for the benefit of the GTHA as a whole, not for individual by-elections that skew political focus.

Whether any of this comes to pass will depend on how much of the Transit Panel’s recommendations are incorporated into the government’s budget for 2014-15, and whether the opposition parties force an election.  The key point is that voters need to believe that any new taxes will actually benefit them, and will do so soon, not a decade or more in the future.

We have had enough of spineless government on the transit file.  Dalton McGuinty was a huge disappointment substituting delay for action, and Kathleen Wynne has only one chance to prove that she really believes in attacking the deficit in transit construction head on.

No excuses.  Build now.