Queen’s Park Wants Toronto’s Subway: The Terms of Reference

The City of Toronto and Province of Ontario have published the Terms of Reference [TOR] for the “uploading” of subway planning, assets and funding to the provincial government.

The Ford Conservatives ran on a platform that included uploading the subway to Ontario while leaving day-to-day responsibility for it in Toronto’s hands.

  • Assume responsibility for subway infrastructure from the City, including the building and maintenance of new and existing subway lines (the “upload”); and,
  • Keep responsibility for day-to-day operations, including labour relations, with the City. [p. 1]

The scheme is intended to confer various benefits:

  • Expedited implementation of a greater number of priority regional transit projects, made possible by the Province’s ability to accelerate procurement, permitting and approvals, and to effectively undertake capital construction;
  • An enhanced ability to plan a more efficient regional transit network across the GTHA, with improved connectivity achieved, for example, through fare and service integration; and,
  • A greater fiscal flexibility to invest in and deliver additional transit projects, and to address essential deferred maintenance needs, which would be effected through amortized provincial capital expenditures on owned assets. [p. 1]

Leaving aside the enmity between Premier Ford and his former colleagues on Toronto Council, this is a classic case of debate over “governance” (who is in charge, who does what) while completely avoiding critical questions about “who pays”. There is a cottage industry in this sort of thing. “Governance” studies replace serious discussion about backlogs both of expansion and maintenance born of a lethal of combination of “we deserve” and “nobody pays”.

“Expedited implementation” has two basic requirements: decisiveness and financial commitment. Neither of these has been present in governments for some time, even without fundamental changes in political philosophy. Indeed, it is difficult to understand how a government so burdened with the need to drive down spending can talk about financing multiple concurrent transit megaprojects, let alone take over the cost of an existing system.

A “more efficient regional transit network” means different things depending on who is speaking. To some, “efficient” means significantly lower costs and is a red flag signalling union busting and privatization. Integration of service and fares has nothing to do with the ownership of transit systems, but rather with the rules under which they operate and are funded. If Queen’s Park wanted to let Mississauga Transit carry passengers in Etobicoke, this could be done with a simple amendment of the City of Toronto Act. The problem of a double fare between 905 systems and the TTC is a question of funding. If the total fare to carry someone from Richmond Hill to Bloor and Yonge is to fall, something has to make up the difference. Who actually owns the services (bus or subway) has nothing to do with it.

“Greater fiscal flexibility” for new transit projects and deferred capital maintenance is certainly available to Queen’s Park whose accounting regimen is very different from the one imposed on the City of Toronto, not to mention provincial access to a wider range of revenue streams. Toronto’s capital plans are hamstrung by two factors: one is the cap on borrowing costs relative to property tax revenues, and the other is Toronto’s decision to use up borrowing headroom on a few major projects. Ontario would simply borrow and leverage this debt against the “asset” of the transit system, or alternately would bury debt in the future cost of a partnership with a private company who would finance, build, operate and maintain provincial assets.

This is a politically motivated takeover, and the real questions lie in just what mechanism will be used, who will own and maintain what, and what potential exists for lasting damage to transit in general.

Continue reading