The Missing Linx: Getting to Your Final Destination – But at What Cost?

Sopana Selvachandran

Let’s be honest. Transit in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area is a lottery: some days are fine for commuters while others are an absolute nightmare. The policy questions are simple: why? And who is going to fix it?

As I pushed through a crowd into a noisy, darkly-lit room, I spotted current President and CEO of Metrolinx Bruce McCuaig, chatting quietly to some of the guests. He was there to present “The Future of Transit in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area.” Taking to the front of the room full of expectant listeners with microphone in hand, he had the daunting task of addressing the proposed future of public transit in the GTHA and the barriers of implementing such proposals.

Transportation is one of the key issues facing our community, and it directly affects how we want to grow. The burden of a large population using an overcrowded transit and regional road system is evident every single day in the GTA. Currently, there are more than two million vehicles on the road during the morning rush hour, with the numbers expected to reach a staggering three million trips by the year 2031.

Anyone who drives in and out of the city on a daily basis toys with the idea of taking transit instead of driving, for a multitude of reasons: long idling times in gridlock, traffic congestion, rising gas prices, ridiculous parking costs, ETR tolls, vehicle maintenance costs, and many more hurdles. Given all of the problems associated with driving, why do many still choose it, as opposed to taking transit? Why does the public choose to sit idle in a car when regional transit is supposed to be an option that saves not only time and money, but is hypothetically “hassle-free?”

Mr. McCuaig gave a simple answer: “regional barriers.” He believes that transit fragmentation across multiple organizations, and multiple fare systems is a barrier to easily moving around the GTHA. The bottom line is that our transit system has simply not been keeping up with the demand on the system. There is a growth of approximately 100,000 people every year to the region (GTHA) and our regional transit infrastructure hasn’t been expanding to meet these demands, and if the current fragmentation continues, it’s likely it never will.

So, how do we mobilize ourselves as a community?

“The Big Move” was a term that was often thrown around during the 45-minute Question & Answer period with Mr. McCuaig. It is an ambitious $50 billion project proposed by the Metrolinx Board of Directors, for the GTHA to adopt a Regional Transportation Plan (RTP) over the next 25 years. The $50 billion dollar project proposed by Metrolinx seems feasible–in an ideal Toronto. However, the key players in the transit debate (The TTC, Metrolinx, the Province and the Mayor) just can’t seem to come to an agreement on how transit should be expanded in the City. While commuters think the agencies and governments are working together for the expansion of regional transit, it seems that these very same bureaucrats have been pointing fingers at each other, resulting in a dark and uncertain future of GTHA transit expansion.

Metrolinx tries to employ a rational choice model, using best practices evidence, but in the final account it is governments that make the decisions. Without dedicated revenue tools that go directly into the transit system Metrolinx is required to go to governments every year for a budget. The remedy for this paralysis is the revenue tools Metrolinx recommended to provide continuous funding into transit system expenditures: HST increases, increased gas taxes, and parking levies. McCuaig proposed a constant revenue stream to support the program and use Los Angeles as an example of a system where a sales tax goes directly into transportation and transit. Can this be the answer to the investment strategy question the city needs? Fundamentally, the CEO of Metrolinx calls for a stronger federal say in how we support transportation systems across our cities.

The alternative is always, “what about the private sector”? As McCuaig mentioned, the private sector is great for investment and innovation but at the same time they need a return on investment. Therefore, the alternative delivery model does not work, because in the end there’s only one group able to pay the long-term costs of infrastructure: the public.

Although McCuaig presents persuasive and idealistic arguments about the future of transit in the GTHA, one must take these proposals as simply what they are: proposals. As evident with the Scarborough expansion project, there are a large number of governance barriers in putting such plans into action, so perhaps we need to reassess the processes and veto points in passing transit legislation and decisions. How do we look at addressing public concerns without being a strain on the system? Do we need to go back to the drawing board and reconsider the model of governance at play when making transit decisions?

The transit debate in Toronto is ongoing, and is often around how to provide service for the most people with a limited amount of resources. Everyone wants subways, but Toronto’s transit challenges are widespread and have various considerations that need to be taken into account. The dark, stifling atmosphere of the event with McCuaig foreshadowed the future of transit in GTHA. Is our transit system really incapable of running a 21st century system plagued by bureaucratic inefficiencies?

For those interested in reading more information on “The Big Move,” the full report can be found online at: http://www.metrolinx.com/thebigmove/en/default.aspx

Sopana Selvachandran is a Master’s of Public Policy candidate for 2015.  She previously achieved a Bachelor of Arts (Hons.) in Criminology from York University. Sopana has expressed a keen interest in a wide range of research including, but not limited to social, immigration, criminal justice and environmental policy.

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