The Problem of Public Transit III: Rearranging the Deck Chairs on the Titanic


This photograph, “Good Morning Brimley”, is by Neurotic Jose and is used in accordance to her Creative Commons license.

I’ve already discussed how our provincial leaders don’t seem to have the political will to ensure that our public transit is funded to the extent that it should be funded. It’s a frustrating situation, because rather than find the political will, or admit to their inadequacies, politicians of all stripes tend to spend what capital they can on splashy, expensive projects which, while they might be politically sexy, aren’t what the commuters necessarily need. With this post, I’ll talk about another tactic: in lieu of actually spending the money needed to improve public transit in the Greater Toronto Area, provincial governments have the tendency to talk about amalgamation.

A few weeks ago, my father asked me about the creation of the Greater Toronto Transportation Authority (GTTA), a much heralded initiative from the McGuinty government to coordinate the budgets, capital projects and, in future, the operations of the various transit agencies throughout the Greater Toronto Area. No longer will Mississauga Transit serve only Mississauga and the Toronto Transit Commission serve only Toronto. A regional board will instead make the boundaries between the parochial transit agencies disappear, so that commuters can seemlessly take a bus, train, streetcar or subway across municipal boundaries on a single fare.

I realize that I too have argued that the political boundaries within the Greater Toronto Area are meaningless. I realize that I’ve said that commuters (in cars) cross between Toronto and Mississauga with impunity, going to work, home, school or shopping. I realize that I have said that the political Balkanization of the Greater Toronto Area is a threat to its ability to manage itself as a region, and secure its future prosperity. So, by that logic, doesn’t it make sense to dissolve the local transit agencies and run everything under a single banner?

But here’s the thing: while I’ve talked long and hard about the need for the Greater Toronto Area to operate as a cohensive region, I believe in a two tier system. I say that while there should be a regional council overseeing regional issues, there should be local councils overseeing local issues. And just like that, I believe that local transit should be local.

A transit board based in Pickering would be more likely to better service Pickering residents than a transit board based out of, say, Burlington. And while there are examples of duplication (the fact that Mississauga buses swamp Burnhamthorpe Road without picking up a single passenger east of the Etobicoke Creek, leaving a single TTC bus to plod around — at least one Transit Toronto member has come up with a sound proposal to contract out TTC service on Burnhamthorpe Road to Mississauga Transit), there are good reasons for local agencies to remain separate from each other. For regional based travel, we need a separate regional transit agency.

And we already have one. It’s called GO Transit.

Whose official name is… wait for it… the Greater Toronto Transit Authority.

Now, don’t get confused. The Greater Toronto Transit Authority is the operator of GO Transit, which operates public transit throughout the Greater Toronto Area. The Greater Toronto TRANSPORTATION Authority is the agency the McGuinty Liberals have set up to improve the coordination of public transportation throughout the Greater Toronto Area. Completely different beast. Totally unrelated.

The Greater Toronto Transit Authority is controlled by a board of directors appointed by the province. The board has thirteen seats, with membership distributed throughout the Greater Toronto Area. The Greater Toronto Transportation Authority is to be controlled by a board of directors appointed by the province. The board has ELEVEN seats, one each to the City of Hamilton and the regions of Halton, Peel, York and Durham, four to the City of Toronto, and two to “at large” business representatives appointed by Queen’s Park.

The Greater Toronto Transit Authority operates a major commuter transit system, with 288 buses and seven train routes, carrying 190,000 passengers per weekday. With a capital budget financed by the province of Ontario, it seeks to expand its network, to take pressure off parallel highways. Initiatives include new rail lines, and busways along Highway 403 and maybe Highway 407. The Greater Toronto Transportation Authority currently operates absolutely nothing, but with a capital budget gathered from undetermined sources, it seeks to expand the public transit network, to take pressure off of parallel highways, though initiatives such as new rail lines, possible cross-border rapid transit lines, and new busways like the one being built along Highway 403.

It should come as a surprise to absolutely nobody that the GT-TransPORTATION-A is expected to absorb the GT-TranSIT-A and be responsible for the operation of GO Transit. Oh, and another one of its goals is to set up some kind of smart card system so we can wave wands or slip plastic cards through readers to travel “seamlessly” throughout the GTA, while (I hope) paying a fare roughly equivalent to the cost of the length of our travel.

I’m hard on McGuinty because he’s the premier. It’s his responsibility to actually do something. But I’ll give him credit: he’s doing as much or more than Mike Harris. And that’s saying more than you think. After disastrously pulling the province out of public transit funding altogether, Harris at least had the sense to return to the funding table in 2001. But even here, Harris’ mismanagement of public transit in the GTA produced interesting stories, making McGuinty little more than the latest in a long line of premiers who didn’t get public transit.

When the Harris government downloaded a number of services to the cities. GO Transit presented a problem since there was no one city it could be downloaded to. And bolstered by the Anne Golden Report which advocated the creation of a GTA-wide regional government, Harris created the Greater Toronto Services Board, supposedly to coordinate services throughout the GTA, but largely only responsible for GO Transit.

I’ve heard tales that when GO Transit was transferred from the province to the GTSB, GO Transit personnel were essentially fired from their old jobs, given severance payments, and then immediately rehired by the GTSB (way to save money, Harris!). When Harris returned to the funding table and the GTSB was retired, this process was repeated in reverse.

There are a lot of questions around how the new GTTA is going to meet its obligations. It apparently has the power to borrow, but no power to tax. It’s likely that the shortfall between fare revenues and capital and operating costs will be made up by direct transfers from the member municipalities. The GTSB operated in the same way (without borrowing power), and set the stage for nasty turf and funding wars between the member municipalities.

And once again, the GTTA’s mandate is heavily biased towards major new projects: extend the subways into York Region. Look at new busways and new LRTs. Try to get more GO Transit lines together. Some of these things are needed; some are being pursued to try and build support in the suburbs around Toronto by divvying up political pork. And there’s still no guarantee that anything will get done.

We have a pretty good idea of what needs to be done. The TTC has an effective plan to increase its ridership to half a billion per year. Its Ridership Growth Strategy calls for simple measures to be taken over the short term: buy more buses and streetcars. Operate more vehicles so that people wait less and have a better chance of getting a seat when their vehicle arrives. Lower fares. Improve transit priority. Replace the aging Scarborough RT. New subway construction is fourth down the list of priorities, and is not a short-term consideration.

Instead, the McGuinty government has quietly cut funding to a variety of initiatives that would have helped the TTC buy more buses and streetcars. Unless the Liberals can be convinced to move, the City of Toronto faces a capital funding shortfall of close to $1.2 billion over the next five years. The money McGuinty has committed to the Spadina subway extension could fund the province’s share of this shortfall, but the province doesn’t seem willing to make the switch and risk losing Finance Minister Greg Sorbara’s seat (which, coincidentally, is where the Spadina extension goes).

And lest you look across the aisle at John Tory, his own transit initiatives aren’t much better. He knows he’d be committing political suicide in York Region if he opposed the Spadina subway extension. He favours new subway construction over buying new buses. He at least acknowledges the need to replace the Scarborough RT, but he talks about extending the Yonge and Bloor subways, two initiatives not on the TTC’s priority list.

Maybe the TTC’s priorities are too simple, concentrating as they do on improving transit for as many people as possible for as little money as possible. Maybe they don’t provide enough of a political bang to give the politicians enough will to spend the money. They’d rather spend more money on splashier projects. It would take a lot more congestion and a lot more frustration before politicians can be moved to buy bread and butter instead of caviar and champagne, and my fear is, before we get to that point, any number of developments could occur that would hurt the Greater Toronto Area.

Politicians will only move if we, the people who elect them, make them move. The first step will come this November when we vote in the municipal elections. Toronto’s politicians need to be reminded that money has to be spent ensuring the system is in a state of good repair and has enough vehicles to handle the ridership that’s already arriving. The more important step will come in October 2007, when McGuinty goes to the polls. My challenge to him is to come forward with the money to ensure that all public transit agencies have the funds they need to provide the services they should be offering NOW, and not subways into marginal constituencies that cost too much, and benefit only a subset of our beleaguered commuters.

Further Comments from Steve Munro

Before I posted this article, I sent it to transit activist Steve Munro for a quick fact check. He had a couple of comments which did not fit easily into the flow of this article, but which I think are important to note. In his words:

(Regarding McGuinty’s proposed GTTA) >>> What is really striking here is how little is actually proposed. No grand strategies for substantial improvements in service across the GTA. Nothing that will address the transportation component of “smart growth”. It’s not much good having a seamless fare card if you still have to wait half an hour for a bus, if it runs at all, and connections are poorly timed. It will sound like a broken record from me, but I lay the blame at decades of the “professionals” telling us that the only way we can move people around well is subways because surface operations are a lost cause. That attitude leads us to have poorly run and co-ordinated surface routes and an attitude that attempting to actually manage service properly is not worth the effort. This is a failure at the professional level roughly akin to transportation planners whose solution for every problem is to build more roads.

(Regarding the Ridership Growth Strategy) The TTC sends mixed messages about the benefits of the RGS surface service schemes by all of the tub thumping for subways and negativity about surface transit. You need to distinguish between the TTC’s priorities as stated in RGS versus the sort of thing the staff and politicians actually spend their time advocating.

Steve’s point in the last paragraph, and it’s fair comment, is that the TTC hasn’t done enough to counter the politicians’ love affair for subway construction because there appears to be a culture within the commission to favour subway construction and other measures to separate transit from automobile traffic. Thus the oft-repeated recommendation that we put as much of the streetcar network on private right-of-way. I myself like private right-of-ways, but the St. Clair project proved to be a source of controversy, and Toronto’s roads department seems intent on allowing such transit facilities only so long as sidewalks and other pedestrian amenities are sacrificed rather than space for car drivers.

There are a lot of players that need to be given a shake in order to make improved public transit a reality in the Greater Toronto Area. Munro challenged Miller to commit the City of Toronto to purchasing new streetcars to replace the current fleet and guarantee streetcar/LRT operation in Toronto for decades to come. I’ve challenged McGuinty.

Sometimes you have to pick your battles. In this series, I’ve focused my attention on the provincial government, because ultimately, they have the greatest power, and even the constitutional responsibility, to fix this. Toronto may have finally received limited powers to fix its own problems, but that doesn’t take the province off the hook. It is the provincial government that has the resources to tackle this problem, and it is all of the people of Ontario who will benefit, if we can ensure that the Greater Toronto Area doesn’t choke on its own congestion.

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