Clock Ticking on Toronto's Streetcar Deal

The following editorial has been crossposted to Transit Toronto.

John Baird and David Miller

Pressure is mounting from various quarters for the provincial and federal governments to provide funding for Toronto’s $1.3 billion purchase of new streetcars to replace the current, aging fleet. Transport Minister John Baird inadvertently brought the issue to national attention when he was caught on tape swearing in frustration over Toronto’s application for economic stimulus money. Baird has since apologized for his intemperate words.

The deal that the City of Toronto reached with Bombardier to replace the TTC’s fleet of streetcars has a time limit. Bombardier’s price for 204 vehicles expires on June 27. The City of Toronto has committed to paying a third of this cost (roughly $40 million per year for the next ten years), and is hoping to have the province and the federal government step in to provide matching funds for the remaining two thirds. This formula matches the formula the province has adopted in the past in covering municipalities’ capital costs on public transportation, but ministers in the McGuinty and Harper governments have expressed surprise and frustration at this demand for more cash.

The rush in negotiations between Toronto, Queen’s Park and Ottawa highlights a flaw in the budget process for public transportation agencies in this province. Until 1996, Queen’s Park covered three quarters of the capital expenses of all public transportation agencies in the province, leaving the municipalities to cover the remaining quarter. This money was provided with few strings attached, and gave municipalities a predictable revenue source with which to pay for the bread and butter jobs that kept transit services operating in a state of good repair. At least, in theory.

Now, the fact that the province and the federal government are happy to offer Toronto two-thirds funding of such major transportation projects as new LRT lines across the city, but balk at funding the cost of replacing aging vehicles, suggests that the budget process is now being done on a far more piecemeal basis. Worse, it suggests that the province and the federal government are more interested in (and more willing to commit funds to) projects which are politically sexy; which they can cut ribbons in front of. So, major new LRT lines — which are needed and appreciated — get cash far more easily than new buses or streetcars for services that are already in place.

This is an unfortunate development. As was noted by a number of commentators, this is a return to the form of the early 1990s, when Toronto and Ontario politicians were far more interested in expanding Toronto’s subway system than they were in making sure that the system which remained had sufficient funds to operate safely. This rot increased to the point where a subway driver was able to take his train past a red signal that should have stopped him and accidentally plough it into a stopped train in front of him.

Negotiations between various officials at the City of Toronto, Ottawa and Queens Park are continuing, and it’s possible that Baird’s intemperate remarks might help get Toronto the funds it needs to replace its aging streetcar fleet, but it shouldn’t have to be this way. The McGuinty government criticized its Harris predecessors for downloading the onerous costs of public transportation onto municipalities. Re-uploading this cost means more than just agreeing to fund two-thirds of various projects you happen to like. As much as there is a need to expand the capacity of public transportation systems throughout the GTA and the province of Ontario, the day-to-day cost of replacing old buses and streetcars, of repairing station roofs, tracks, refueling facilities, bus shelters, and keeping these facilities clean, is no less important. And it is this that Queen’s Park and Ottawa have given short shrift to.

If Queen’s Park and Ottawa truly want to ensure that capacity exists in the region’s public transit network to keep the economy moving in future, it cannot focus solely on expansion projects. Until someone comes forward with a predictable funding formula that treats expansion of the new and maintenance of the old equally, our agencies will continue to live hand-to-mouth, and be unable to properly address the congestion issues of the future.

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