How Do You Solve a Problem Like Toronto?

TTC Streetcar at Neville Loop

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Over on Spacing Toronto, columnists John Lorinc and Steve Munro have collaborated on a debate on whether or not the Toronto Transit Commission should be taken over by the provincial transit agency Metrolinx. It’s an interesting read, and you should check it out. The idea is not as far fetched as you might think.

Metrolinx, the provincial agency set up by Dalton McGuinty’s government to invest in public transportation in the Greater Toronto Area, has already made moves onto the TTC’s jurisdiction, with the support of both the TTC and the City of Toronto. Several of the transit announcements that surrounded Metrolinx’s foundation incorporated projects that had been proposed by the transit commission and Toronto’s city council, including Transit City’s network of six LRT lines stretching across the northern half of the City of Toronto. Funding for the Eglinton, Sheppard East and Finch West LRTs have been secured, and Metrolinx appears to have bowed to the TTC’s recommendation that the Eglinton Crosstown line be built as an LRT (with a lengthy underground section in the middle) rather than a more expensive extension of the Scarborough RT).

But Metrolinx’s contributions came with strings attached. Once the Sheppard East, Finch West and Eglinton LRTs are built, they’ll be owned by Metrolinx and not the TTC, even though these will be operated as part of the TTC, accepting TTC fares and transfers to and from connecting TTC routes. This is a sharp departure from how transit infrastructure was built before. Even when the provincial government covered 75% of the cost of subway construction, ownership of the new infrastructure remained with the TTC. These days, it seems to be felt that with the province absolving Torontonians of their share of the infrastructure construction, said infrastructure should be counted against the province’s assets rather than that of the municipality. The fact that this new infrastructure will operate alongside and even connect with TTC-owned infrastructure is a complication that will be addressed another day.

There have been calls for a full provincial takeover of the Toronto Transit Commission before. I recall such suggestions taking place as early as 1994 when Metropolitan Toronto backed away from new subway construction offered by the Bob Rae government. Whatever the benefits provincial ownership of the TTC may offer, the suggestion that Torontonians might have to give up control over their local transit system, to serve regional interests, has not been popular.

Well, at least until now. As Toronto’s structural problems become more clear, as the financial reserves drain out and the city contemplates a $200 million shortfall in the operation of the underserviced TTC, the suggestions have come from several quarters that the province needs to step forward to share the cost of operating Toronto’s transit service. Toronto mayor David Miller and his council are currently in negotiations with McGuinty’s government about some sort of funding arrangement that could come into play by the end of this year. But some proposals have gone further. Recently, mayoral candidate Rocco Rossi voiced what some have suggested: that perhaps the province should take the TTC off of Toronto’s hands altogether. By assuming full cost, they will effectively close the structural funding gap that plagues the city. And assuming full cost might not be possible without assuming full control.

In making the case for uploading the TTC to the province, Mr. Lorinc makes a strong case for a Greater Toronto Transit Authority serving residents in the 416 and 905 region. Already, tens of thousands of commuters each day travel to and from jobs and other destinations located on both sides of the 416/905 divide. The Greater Toronto Area has a balkanized network of transit agencies each concentrating on their own little patch of land, and attempts to coordinate services to make travel more seamless has been slow in coming. Mississauga Transit buses pass TTC stops on their way to the subway, leaving Torontonians on the hook for the cost of operating poorer service on the same roads. The boundaries between the GTA’s transit authorities make less and less sense each day. Maybe it’s time to eliminate them. And if so, maybe it makes sense for the provincial agency, Metrolinx, to assume control.

However, as I noted in the comments posted after this debate, has Mr. Lorinc given much thought as to what a resident in the 519 region might think of this? Or how about 613? Or 705?

One thing the debates surrounding Toronto’s upcoming election show is that the challenges facing the next council are big — bigger, perhaps, than the council is designed to handle. As all sorts of issues, from transit to garbage collection to economic development, now spill outside of Toronto’s boundaries, the need for a regional manager becomes ever more clear. Just one problem: the provincial government seems unwilling to give us just that.

In 1954, when the province of Ontario created the municipality of Metropolitan Toronto, they created an agency that would assure the competent management of Toronto’s regional issues without sacrificing local concerns. The two-tier system worked by allowing the local councils to remain to deal with local issues, while at the same time providing a forum for discussion of regional concerns to take place. But this only worked because of one key criteria: in 1954, the boundaries of Metropolitan Toronto encompassed most of the urban region that was Toronto. By the late 1980s, that percentage had dwindled to near 50%.

Today, the province refuses to create a regional manager for the GTA, instead opting for piecemeal special purpose bodies like Metrolinx to tackle the matter on an issue-by-issue basis. They’ve been leery of regional governance for the GTA since the 1970s when Bill Davis refused a recommendation by former premier John Robarts to expand Metro’s boundaries to encompass Mississauga, Vaughan, Markham and Pickering.

And why would they cut their own throat? A regional government for the GTA would encompass almost half of the province’s population, and an even higher percentage of Ontario’s taxes. It would certainly threaten the dominance of Queen’s Park, creating an elected official that theoretically spoke for half of Ontario.

But the issues of the region of Toronto aren’t going away, and they have to be managed lest the economy of the whole of Ontario is affected. This is probably why Dalton McGuinty has taken the steps he has done to effectively act as the regional manager for the Greater Toronto Area. This is probably why the prospect of a Metrolinx takeover of the TTC is on the table.

Unfortunately, this is likely to fuel greater resentment from the other regions of the province, particularly the north and the rural east, who feel that Queen’s Park is paying less and less attention to their issues and more attention to Toronto’s problems. Already, you’re starting to see the polarization of the province along these lines, and the risk exists that should the government of Ontario shift, the regional manager that Queen’s Park represents (such as it is) may disappear entirely.

It seems unlikely, still, that the province will create a true regional government for the Greater Toronto Area. It’s even more unlikely (by a factor of ten) that the alternate solution of breaking the 416 and 905 area codes into a province in their own right is going to happen. So, what’s to be done? What is to be done?

(Update: March 14): What is to be done? Here’s a suggestion

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