I spent last summer researching the issue of rapid transit in Toronto, Ontario, and spoke with 10 locals who work in the transit field about ‘The Big Move,’ the proposal from provincial planning agency Metrolinx for improving transportation in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA). Metrolinx is an agency of the Province of Ontario, created in 2006, that is mandated to create sustainable projects and contribute to a positive quality of life. You might know Metrolinx if you take the GO Train, or have heard of the new PRESTO project or the Union-Pearson Express.
The Big Move is a 25-year, $50 billion plan launched by Metrolinx in 2008 that transforms rapid transportation throughout the region. There are currently $16 billion worth of transit projects underway, but the agency is recommending a further $34 billion commitment for future projects. With this commitment, the aim is that rapid transit ‒including light rail, bus rapid transit, and subway extensions – will give southern Ontario commuters new and better travel options, reduce congestion and better serve the growing population.
$50 billion is no small sum of money. Committing such high levels of funding to a project is an uphill climb for any sitting government, and these decisions are inevitably met with debate and controversy.
Yet the debate over GTHA transit issues seems to be unique. Region-wide transit plans like The Big Move have come and gone, and yet Toronto car commuters face among the highest travel times in North America at 82 minutes per day, making this an economic as well as an environmental and social problem.
Financing The Big Move
In May 2013, Metrolinx provided the province with its recommendations for how to finance the additional $34 billion needed to pay for The Big Move. Its recommendations can be seen in the graphic below.
The expected revenue from each of these methods is $1.3 billion, $350 billion, $330 million, and $100 million, respectively. Torontoist has provided a breakdown of costs depending on your family size and lifestyle:
- For the average student: $117 a year
- For a two-car, five-person family: $977 a year
- For an average senior: $140 a year
- For the overall average household: $477 a year
- The average annual per capita cost: $179
Compare this, Metrolinx claims, to the average cost of congestion per household of $1,619 a year.
What’s the problem?
What exactly is standing in the way of investing in GTHA transit? This question became top of mind time and time again, so I decided to base my research on a hypothesis: that the lack of financial commitment to rapid-transit must be the result of external interest group pressure, business lobbyists, citizen groups and others who specifically do not want money being spent on transit upgrades.
The short answer is that this hypothesis was incorrect, according to those I spoke with. Interviewees from the Toronto Board of Trade, Metrolinx, the Toronto Transit Commission, the Ministry of Environment, Evergreen and others indicated that the transit investment issue is highly political, but that external interests are not the problem.
Turns out, the delay stems from three main issues: top-down decision-making, a lack of recent political champions, and unproductive city council debates. Many noted that there have not been enough politicians backing transit investment, and a championed proposal is often needed to gather support from other politicians and the public. The individuals I interviewed were concerned that debates happening at Toronto City Council have and will continue to confuse the public and impact the implementation of The Big Move.
These local debates also obscure the fact that the funding of these projects is to come from the province, so the opinions of council members have no direct impact on whether particular projects in The Big Move come to fruition. However, what they will certainly do is delay meaningful and practical debate on the funding sources for the projects. Any delay for a problem as serious as congestion and pollution is fundamentally unproductive.
Are there solutions?
Recommendation 1: Hold a public referendum
Some interviewees suggested that the nature of a discussion affects its outcome. In this case, GTHA residents have not been directly asked where they stand on this issue and their opinions have largely been speculated upon. I don’t believe the conversation has been real enough for the people of southern Ontario – they hear the plans and they see the news, yet nothing changes.
However, if the city or the province asked for the public to vote in a referendum, the public would be asked to engage directly with the issue and think realistically about their preferences. This is what some cities in the United States and Europe have done. Offering the public a chance to vote in this type of process is called direct democracy.
Recommendation 2: Regional representation
The GTHA region is heavily fragmented with a mixture of cities, municipalities and townships represented. A few of my interviewees mentioned that this new classification of the GTHA is problematic because there is no individual at city council or Queen’s Park who represents and advocates for the GTHA as a whole. This makes it difficult to solve problems or push forward infrastructure development for rapid transit quickly or efficiently. If we are to continue to distinguish the GTHA as an interconnected region we should consider creating a new electoral region at the local and provincial level.
Recommendation 3: Respect expert knowledge
The Big Move is the result of years of expert research by Metrolinx. Intense city council debates over the last year have created tension and confusion between the informed expert research and the information shared to the public via many politicians. The Province should consider intervening in debates when misinformation is being provided as I believe they have a responsibility to uphold what is factual and to clearly discredit what is false.
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