Dear Dalton McGuinty: Show us the Money!!

TTC Santa 3, by Word Freak

(The picture on the right is entitled TTC Santa 3 and is by Roger Cullman. It is used in accordance to his Creative Commons license. This post has been crossposted to Transit Toronto and Metronauts)

It’s strange how the prospect of a plan to significantly improve and expand public transportation infrastructure in the Greater Toronto Area leaves me more discouraged than hopeful. But that’s the tone of the little voice that’s starting to speak at the back of my mind as I hear that Metrolinx, the regional agency set up by the McGuinty government to study the future transit needs of the GTA, is set to release a $55 billion plan chalk full of ambitious transit expansion proposals.

The problem is, this is the second grand plan to be released by the provincial player in two years. In July 2007, McGuinty shifted the political landscape with his ambitious MoveOntario 2020 proposal. This plan called for $17 billion in spending between 2008 and 2020 to build LRT lines, busways and subway extensions across the Greater Toronto Area and in Kitchener-Waterloo. The great advantage of the plan is that it implemented proposals that various cities had had on their books for a while. McGuinty promised that Queen’s Park would cover the municipal third of the capital cost, and it promised to fasttrack various environmental assessments to get shovels in the ground as soon as 2009.

MoveOntario 2020 promised to implement Toronto’s Transit City proposal whole-hog, to put LRT lines on — and, in some cases, beneath — Finch, Sheppard, Don Mills, Jane and Eglinton Avenues at a cost of at least $6 billion. The centrepiece of this plan was an LRT mini-subway on Eglinton Avenue between roughly Jane and Leslie. Featuring 90 metre platforms set between 500-800 metres apart, such a line could carry near subway loads, and certainly had the capacity to handle Eglinton’s projected crowds.

Along comes Metrolinx, whose draft $55 billion proposal argues that an underground LRT has insufficient capacity (an assertion I disagree with), and that a subway might be a better choice (an assertion I’m willing to entertain). There’s an odd proposal that the line could be a western extension of the Scarborough RT, but that’s simply ludicrous to my mind, since the Scarborough RT combines LRT capacity limitations with the high costs of subway construction. Either way, the result is a bit of a car-crash. The Eglinton LRT and subway proposals have met head on in the middle of a tight alleyway, and the drivers are now shouting at each other over who should have the right-of-way.

The debate over whether a subway or an LRT should go beneath Eglinton Avenue is a distraction to me. Either would be fine. Eglinton can support a subway, but an LRT can support Eglinton for less money. The questions we should be asking are, what can we afford to build, and what are we more likely to find funding to build? And, most importantly, what can we start building within the next two years?

The sum total of Metrolinx’s proposals are certainly tasty. If implemented, we get rapid transit of some form beneath Eglinton, we get an east-west subway through the downtown core. We get substantially improved GO train service, and even an extension of proposed Transit City LRT lines up Jane and Don Mills into York Region. We get light rail and bus rapid transit projects in York Region, Mississauga, Hamilton and Kitchener-Waterloo. We get a new network that makes it much easier to get around the Greater Toronto Area without driving. That’s worth spending money on, in my opinion.

But the plan also costs $55 billion — a number that’s sure to inflate in the coming years. If we hope to build these things by, say, 2030, that’s an investment of $2.5 billion per year. Compare that to the less ambitious MoveOntario 2020, which called for $17 billion in total spending by 2020, or roughly $1 billion per year (although that number has also increased through inflation and the fact that the time frame has compressed). Worse, in both cases, bread-and-butter issues such as funding for replacement streetcars and buses remain unaddressed.

So while I would be delighted if we could implement Metrolinx’s draft proposals, I have to turn to the McGuinty government and the people behind Metrolinx and say, “show me the money.” Indeed, McGuinty needs to start showing us the money to prove that he has a commitment even to the projects of the less ambitious MoveOntario 2020 plan. And the clock is ticking.

The delight I took over the original MoveOntario proposal was on the assurance that these projects would be fasttracked — that the environmental assessments were largely done or could be quickly done, and the province only had to sign its chequebook to get shovels in the ground. Provincial and municipal politicians looked me in the eye and told me that we would see construction begin on certain projects before the next municipal elections in 2010. In 2007, my great hope was not that the next big development after the release of the MoveOntario 2020 study would be yet another study. Whatever plan we choose, I feel that we need to have shovels in the ground by 2010, or nothing will happen.

Proposals to increase public transit infrastructure in southern Ontario has, for the past twenty years, been little more than vapourware. In this period, politicians have come forward again and again to propose great and ambitious plans before elections, only to find themselves too short of money to implement those grand plans after they are elected. Instead, the plans are studied to death. Network 2011, Let’s Move — they’ve all been consigned to the dustbins of history, and unless concrete work is underway by the time politicians are running for re-election, then the promise to build these new lines simply becomes a recycled election promise, of something the politicians will do before the next time they face re-election. Or the time after that. Or the time after that.

And Ontarians simply cannot wait any longer.

Further Reading

P.S. Comments for this post are now closed, as the discussion is taking place on the Metronauts version of this article, here

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