The Problem of Public Transit I: The Silent Necessity Grows Louder

Before I go into this post, you should check out the Unwritten Blog as I have a bit of cool news that I want to share.

Also I am pleased to announce that the 98th issue of The New Quarterly contains an article I wrote about why I enjoy reading children’s literature, as well as an interview I conducted with Governor General Award-winning author Kenneth Oppel. You can find the magazine at better independent bookstores throughout Canada.


Previous article: Transit, the Silent Necessity.

Photo by Brett Lamb.

The Conservative government’s first budget has come and gone, and should pass without too much difficulty with support from the Bloc Quebecois.

There is already some excellent analysis of this budget, both pro and con, so I won’t add too much to that. I will say that I am pleased that the current surplus is at $8 billion, and that, like Declan I am saddened that debt repayment isn’t a priority with this government.

But I want to focus on public transit.

The Conservatives are maintaining the spending initiatives and the transfers of the gas tax brought in by the previous Liberal government. To this, the new government has added a tax credit on monthly passes. It’s a small step, but significant. Transit activist Steve Munro notes that the initiative significantly lowers the break-even point for monthly transit passes nationwide. The TTC’s Metropass which now pays for itself after 47.5 rides, will pay for itself after 40 rides.

Add this to the $505 million promised to Ontario (which will likely go into the province’s trust fund reserved to extend the Spadina subway into Vaughan), one can see why Michael Roschlau, president of the Canadian Urban Transit Association, calls this a good budget for public transit. Good, but not great.

On the surface, it would seem to be a good year for transit. So far in 2006, the McGuinty Liberals announced a contribution of $670 million into a trust that would fund an extension of the Spadina subway into Vaughan, and more money toward infrastructure renewal. More recently, they announced the creation of a Greater Toronto Transit Authority to oversee the integration of the various public transit agencies in the Greater Toronto Area, and the pursuit of major transit infrastructure (busways, subways, LRT) that would cross municipal boundaries.

Given the situation I wrote about three years before, this should be good news (and it is!), but as ungrateful as it may sound, this good news may not be good enough. We have a lot of catching up to do, and to do it, not only must more money be spent, but the money that is spent must be spent as effectively as possible. The senior levels of government are not doing this.

I don’t really blame the federal Conservatives. Public transportation is a provincial matter, one which in Ontario in general and Toronto particularly has suffered from two decades of neglect. Premier Mike Harris did the worst damage in 1996 when he pulled the provincial government out of public transit spending altogether, but he wasn’t alone.

The governments before him tended to look to public transit for cuts when money needed to be saved. We cut back on service gradually, until this combined with a recession resulted in almost 100 million riders deserting the Toronto Transit Commission. We skimped on maintenance until Toronto’s streetcar network started to crumble and a fatal subway crash in 1995 shook us from our complacency. As the 1990s closed, the situation got pretty desperate. There was an approaching hump of hundreds of millions of dollars of unavoidable capital spending required to maintain the system in a state of good repair. Fares were rising out-of-step with inflation. Toronto’s population was growing, and more people were turning to their cars to get around. Harris had to go back on his decision to take the province out of public transit funding, or he risked choking Toronto’s economy on congestion.

With the election of the McGuinty Liberals in Queen’s Park, and Liberal spending initiatives at the federal level maintained by the newly elected Conservatives, the situation has stabilized, but Toronto’s population has not. Ridership on the TTC is rising, but it’s still 50 million passengers per year short of the high it achieved in 1988, when the GTA was a million people smaller. Our roads are noticeably more congested.

So, clearly we have some catching up to do.

I appreciate that public transit has finally attracted the attention of our senior levels of government. Kudos, guys! My beef is that this attention has been sporadic and half-hearted. Stabilizing the current system isn’t enough; not with the Greater Toronto Area’s population expected to grow by another million in 2025, and Toronto city-proper’s population expected to reach three million through intensification. We need to spend even more, and we need to spend what we spend more wisely. And I fear that the spending that is on the table now is motivated more by politicial expediency than sensible planning.

In two follow-up posts, I’ll discuss the initiatives that have been proposed of late; what are their strengths and what are their weaknesses? I will be talking about what we could be doing instead to improve the public transportation picture in the Greater Toronto Area, and speculating on why the government isn’t doing it.

In Canada’s largest cities, public transportation is almost as important an expenditure as education and health care. It is the grease that keeps these cities’ economies moving. But just as the cities are struggling to come out from under an infrastructure deficit, public transit does not get the attention it deserves. The easy fixes tend to be overlooked in favour of splashier projects with stronger photo opportunities. The politician that takes this issue seriously is one that will have more vision than any other individual in Queen’s Park and Ottawa over the past twenty-five years, but he may also be a politician that almost nobody remembers.

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