Anyone reading the news recently has likely heard of the ongoing battle for long-term funding solutions for public transit in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA) and beyond. While the relatively unknown provincial transit agency Metrolinx has drawn up plenty of lines on maps, there is currently no money for new projects. Governments can’t be relied on for the $50 billion in needed funds, as politicians continue arguing over a set of proposed funding tools to generate $2 billion annually. The Provincial Liberals are desperate to maintain their minority, while Toronto is gearing up for a heated 2014 municipal election. In Ottawa, federal politics are reacting to a revitalised Liberal party as it takes on the Harper government at the midpoint of its majority term.
As we wait for a compromise to eventually emerge from this mess, there are signs of success at the local and regional level. Unfortunately, national rail transport systems are in steady decline. While transit systems and rail networks have been severely challenged by government cuts, some municipalities are providing hope that a future without reliance on the car is possible.
Canada’s once-proud national passenger rail network has been essentially gutted by successive budget cuts, and more are on the way. In 2012 VIA Rail reduced service on many of its routes due to a 60 per cent cut to VIA’s operating subsidy since 2011. This has had a significant socio-economic impact in many communities. Although buried in the 2013 spring budget, initial reports suggest VIA will be cut by a further $290 million. While it was able to cushion the 2012 cuts by reducing service, VIA will likely have to drop train routes in Southwestern Ontario, especially to Sarnia and Niagara Falls. Although GO Transit service exists in some areas it is slow and not suited to long distance travel. Ontario’s North has also been hit hard by rail cuts by both VIA and the Provincial Liberals. In September 2012 the 100-year-old Northlander train was cancelled. The train from Toronto to Cochrane was an essential part of many northern communities and residents must now completely rely on cars and congested highways.
While regional and national transit has languished, many urban centres are constructing new light rail transit (LRT) systems. Waterloo Region led the charge on increasing public transit, and now Hamilton, Mississauga, Brampton, Toronto, and Ottawa are all constructing light rail systems. These will fundamentally change Ontario’s largest cities and have multiple co-benefits. Densities will increase as new development flocks to transit lines, spurring new economic opportunities to serve populations and tap into top talent. Carbon footprints will decrease substantially as citizens switch to riding electric trains. Soon Ontario’s downtowns may resemble compact European urban centres. It has not been an easy process: all of these LRT/BRT (bus rapid transit) projects have faced huge hurdles (both Toronto and Ottawa’s LRTs were cancelled once). A recent article by the Toronto Star provides an excellent case study as residents in York Region campaign against the new BRT project.
As Southern Ontario’s highways come to a standstill, municipalities are beginning to launch legal challenges to the Province to provide adequate transit funding. The Places to Grow Act, created in 2005, is the blueprint for municipal growth and sets forth how millions of new residents will flood the province by 2030. According to renowned urban planner Paul Bedford, the GTHA will absorb a population equal to Greater Montreal over the next 25 years. In Halton Region, where population is set to grow by 50%, councillors are threatening to reject the Province’s growth targets if they don’t deliver transit services. Waterloo Region is now appealing a recent decision by the Ontario Municipal Board that increased the land set aside for residential development from 80ha to a whopping 1050ha. Municipalities have gotten the message that they need to encourage density and provide integrated, efficient transit systems.
While Ontario moves forward on some areas and backwards in others, a transit future is inevitable. Once the new LRT projects are constructed and the benefits become more apparent, progress on this file will accelerate. Eventually politicians will agree on a funding formula; there is too much at stake otherwise. Ironically we had it right 100 years ago, when companies like the Toronto Suburban Railway offered electric interurban railway service to Guelph and other destinations. Make the trip out to Rockwood’s transit museum and see for yourself.
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