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A new era for transportation planning in Toronto?

A major governance change may significantly affect transportation decision-making in the Toronto region. Metrolinx, the Greater Toronto Transportation Authority formed in 2006, will absorb GO Transit, which operates regional transit services. As both are provincial bodies, they can be created, dissolved, or merged by the Province of Ontario. Transportation Minister Jim Bradley introduced the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area Transit Implementation Act on March 30, 2009 amid concerns that the new Metrolinx board will not incorporate municipal mayors. In fact the legislation expressly forbids a municipal employee from sitting on the board, which is made up of fifteen high-level business people, only five of whom have any transit planning experience. A similar process took place in the Vancouver region in 2007 when Provincial Transportation Minister Kevin Falcon removed municipal delegates from the TransLink board, replacing them with his own hand-picked delegates.

Steve Munro, a vocal supporter of the transit in the Toronto region, voiced his discontent with the Ontario government’s decision. Munro argues that although the new legislation was introduced to push infrastructure through and override petty squabbles between municipalities, in reality the higher levels of government were usually at fault for failing to fund transportation initiatives in the region. This has resulted in years of inertia rather than good, solid investment and planning of transportation projects.

When was the last time Toronto copied Vancouver? The new Metrolinx board shares many similarities with the new TransLink board formed in November 2007, whose nine members boast only two with vague transit planning experience. Lower Mainland citizens were outraged when the board’s first action was to vote themselves a pay raise in February 2008. While the former board, composed of municipal employees, were paid $200 per meeting, and met once a month, the new board gets $1200 per meeting and hefty retainers between $25,000 and $100,000. Like the former board of elected municipal politicians, the new appointed board can raise property taxes, change taxation classifications, accumulate property and run its own police force. The new board makes most of its decisions in private and holds quarterly consultations with the mayors’ council: at the first of these meetings, several mayors stormed out after being unable have their opinions heard. Under Bill 43, the board is allowed to decide when and where to meet.

In Toronto, the new legislation proposes that the Metrolinx board meets in public:

  • On any occasion it determines
  • When the board is adoping or amending a regional transportation plan
  • When the board is considering approval of an investment strategy
  • When the corporation’s annual report is presented
  • When the corporation is considering a by-law to change the fares charged on its system

The board is not required to discuss capital planning or projects, the Metrolinx budget, or the investment strategy. It is unclear whether Metrolinx will take over ownership of municipal transportation infrastructure such as the subway; naturally any change in governance raises issues of local versus regional importance. This is rather important; we see the results of this fragmentation in Vancouver, where TransLink still hasn’t recovered from the 1998 split of BC Transit into Coast Mountain Bus Company, which does detailed route planing and operates buses, TransLink, which does comprehensive planning. The British Columbia Rapid Transit Company operates the SkyTrain, while the new Canada Line will be operated by InTransit BC.

An interesting note is that in both cases, the province claimed it was making the change in order to streamline decision-making in the region. Those of us with even a hint of planning experience can understand the frustrations of political agendas entering the decision making process: witness the construction of the Expo Skytrain Line in Vancouver for Expo 86 and its alignment through NDP ridings. However, in the Vancouver region, Bill 43 was introduced in part to expedite provincial will, ensuring that the region had less say in the decisions; the Canada Line had been voted down by the old TransLink Board three times. TransLink argued it could have more of an impact on transit in the region by increasing bus frequency and introducing more rapid bus services; the Province favoured the LRT. Some argue that TransLink was given a choice: accept the LRT or face funding shortfalls for transit in the region. Shortly afterward, Bill 43 was introduced to effectively eliminate regional voices. Now that’s streamlined!

I would urge Toronto transit advocates and municipal transportation planners to keep on top of the Province of Ontario’s decision. While the TTC still remains under municipal control, the Province plays a major role in infrastructure decisionmaking and funding. Compiling an “expert” board made up of the provincial minister’s investment buddies, none of whom take or advocate transit, is like asking a bunch of PC users to design Mac software. They just don’t have the knowledge to make good decisions. Just ask Vancouver transit users.


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