Strange Bedfellows Indeed (Harper and McGuinty Seduced... by Transit)


We did an early Bloggers Hotstove today. With Dan Arnold from Calgary Grit, Damian Penny from Daimnation, it was a more ideologically balanced hotstove than some of the more recent ones, and it was good to get participation from different parts of the country. And it was a congenial atmosphere, deftly handled by the ever-reliable MC, Greg Staples. Check it out here). This week, we talked about heated rhetoric on the part of the Conservatives, Liberals and Greens, the Quebec election, and Harper’s gift to McGuinty.

We got talking a bit about transit, and Damian, knowing my interest in trains and subways, sent me this remarkable link: an unofficial guide to the Pyongyang Metro. There are some remarkable shots here. And, frankly, I hope that once the North Korean dictatorship falls, assuming the place doesn’t burn down, that they maintain the art on the subway. We’ll need something to remember an era I’m sure many North Koreans will want to forget.

As I mentioned on the Hotstove, Stephen Harper handed Dalton McGuinty something of a gift this past weekend, by suggesting that an announcement was in the works for $1 billion of federal funding for public transit initiatives in the Greater Toronto Area.

The centrepiece of this announcement is a $700 million contribution to an extension of the Spadina subway line to York University and into Vaughan (The Toronto Star has more details). This helps McGuinty by possibly getting shovels in the ground for this high-profile project before the October 2007 election. The subway also runs to the riding of Ontario Finance Minister Greg Sorbara. The line will undoubtedly help the fortunes of provincial Liberals and federal Tories in the volatile 905 Belt region, and one wonders what Stephane Dion and John Tory must think of all this.

Now, I’m an unabashed transit enthusiast, and I love my subways as much as the next guy, but I still feel that this project is ill-advised. It’s no accident that David Miller and other Canadian mayors are heading to Ottawa today to demand even more funds for urban infrastructure. How dare they, you say? The feds just handed Toronto over a billion dollars, and we’re complaining about it?

Well, let’s clear up one misconception. I’m expecting the Harper government to announce similar urban infrastructure initiatives to other parts of the country, especially Montreal, Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver. Many of these initiatives will be welcome (and, indeed, many of the initiatives in the $1 billion announcement for the Greater Toronto Area are welcome), but while the feds may be spending the money, the cities and, of course, the taxpayers within them whose money is being spent should be allowed a say over whether the federal initiatives amount to value for money.

The York University extension will benefit around 100,000 riders per day, which is not a small number, and is more than the Sheppard subway currently carries. York University is a natural terminus for the Spadina subway, and there are good regional transit connections to be had by extending the line north to connect with York Region’s VIVA service and a possible transitway along Highway 407. However, the line will not be open until 2014, and it still leaves vast swathes of Toronto city proper starved for transit.

I’ve said it before (in a three part series, no less) that there is a transit plan on the table which can provide Torontonians with benefits almost immediately, throughout the City as opposed to along one narrow corridor. It’s called the Ridership Growth Strategy and it advocates that all transit funds be spent in a particular order of priority:

  1. on maintaining a state of good repair, ensuring that the system we have runs in a safe and comfortable fashion. We need more money to clean the subway stations and the vehicles, we need money to replace old buses, streetcars and subways, and we need to figure out what the heck to do with the Scarborough RT. The City of Toronto recently approved a $700 million capital budget which accomplishes a lot of this, but Torontonians can expect $800 million capital budgets to be the order of the day for the next five years. Money for this unavoidable spending has not been earmarked.
  2. on increasing service throughout the city. More buses, more streetcars, a policy to reduce wait times on all routes. Nowhere in the city should you have to wait longer than 20 minutes for a bus, 10 minutes for a streetcar or 5 minutes for a subway. Standing crowds on transit vehicles should be dramatically reduced.
  3. increasing service priority for heavily-used bus and streetcar routes. Private rights of way will provide service levels approaching those currently carried by the Sheppard subway, for 1/5th the cost of construction.
  4. THEN AND ONLY THEN consider new subway construction.

McGuinty and Harper have got this priority list completely backwards, but they’re not alone. Senior government officials throughout the past two decades as well as municipal officials have shown a marked preference for spending oodles of dollars on megaprojects because of the political capital this raises. There’s far more photo opportunities to be had building new subway lines than there is in buying more buses. It’s more politically sexy. Trains into tunnels and all that.

You might say that a billion dollars is better than nothing. You might say that new subway construction is the only thing that can entice commuters out of their cars. I dispute the second point, and even if you believe it, the amount of money required to get adequate subway coverage across the city to make Toronto as transit friendly as you’d like, would amount to the tens of billions. There are no corporations and few level of governments with the resources to take this on. Maybe we could turn things around by committing to two kilometres of new subway construction per year in perpetuity, but no level of government has shown the slightest interest in achieving this, and we still have to face the cost of maintaining the system we got. For the amount of money all three levels of government have earmarked for this project, to build almost eight kilometers of subway, over fifty kilometres of LRT lines could sprout, across the Hydro corridor along the north of the city, through the Port Lands, along the Lakeshore, up Jane Street and Don Mills. People could benefit now rather than 2014. But it’s not to be.

I don’t deride McGuinty for this, much. Across the floor, John Tory at least addresses the Scarborough RT problem, but continues to talk in terms of new subway construction over much more achievable and effective measures. What’s needed is a sea change, to convince politicians that there is political capital to be had in commissioning a system of LRT lines and busways, that there is sexiness in renewing old equipment. That reducing wait times isn’t only desirable in hospital emergency rooms.

But until that happens; until Harper or McGuinty come forward and confirm that, in addition to the new subway construction, they will ensure that Toronto’s streetcars keep running, that new LRT lines will spread across the city, it will be a frustrating experience all round.

Further Reading

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