Last week’s federal budget announcement has raised the hackles of transportation analysts over the potential for Canadian cities to implement badly needed public transit in its most populous areas. With the creation of a new fund for public transit of $250 million in 2017, the fund would increase to $500 million in 2018 and $1 billion by 2019. This is the first time a federal government has proposed a permanent transit fund–but make no mistake, this budget was designed to counter voter fears in an election year. It has no basis in reality.
While mayor John Tory said he was confident the City of Toronto would get its fair share of the federal funds, TTC Chair Josh Colle said it’s too early to make assumptions because cities across the country would compete against each other to fund projects. Ontario Finance Minister Charles Sousa said the funding still isn’t enough to meet the needs of Ontario cities, or rapidly changing areas like the Ring of Fire mineral deposit, which needs a road or rail connection to develop further. Toronto Star commentator John Barber went even further, calling the proposed funding “a sop to the gullible” since $250 million would only build as much as one subway station in a single city. Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson and Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi agreed that the federal funding proposal is “too little too late”: years of federal backsliding means that cities have been struggling with aging infrastructure for decades, and the fund doesn’t make a dent in the backlog of proposals for improvements. In Winnipeg, mayor Brian Bowman would hope to use the funding to extend the city’s bus rapid transit system.
There’s no question that our cities face major challenges in dealing with congestion and air quality problems, and for too long the solution has been one-off funding solutions. The tide of transportation choice appears to be turning–even in American suburbs, Millennial transportation choices skew towards public transit. Since Millennials are the largest living generation in the US, transit is beginning to be viewed as an economic development tool to attract young people, in addition to contributing to lower traffic congestion. Many countries have seen a decrease in driving among Millennials, and some have seen an overall decrease in vehicle miles travelled as part of a broad cultural shift as people rethink the way they live and work. Canadian cities badly need a permanent federal fund for transit–but it needs to be in the order of magnitude of billions, not millions. It should also guarantee that small and mid-sized municipalities can get transit that meet their needs, including bus rapid transit, local bus, and bike paths.