Hey, Government of Ontario: you’re really not proving to be very good at funding and building transit.
That’s about the only conclusion I can draw from this morning’s press conference delivered by Transportation Minister Bob Chiarelli. Though ostensibly held to celebrate final cabinet approval of the four Transit City light rail lines council endorsed a few months back, the overwhelming message—coming with a major delay to a light rail project and a negative response to the new OneCity plan—was a resounding “screw you” directed squarely at Toronto’s transit vision.
This isn’t a new thing. Yes, Queen’s Park deserves kudos for their initial funding commitment under the MoveOntario 2020 plan, announced way back in 2007. That was a major step forward. But they’ve been a wildly inconsistent partner ever since. The province has had a hand in delaying, cutting and altering plans so many times that I have to wonder if, somewhere up in the provincial budget offices, they regret making their commitment to funding transit in the first place.
Look at the history. After expressing support for all seven light rail routes proposed under Transit City—about 120 kilometres of track—the province’s support eventually devolved to include only priority projects on Eglinton, Finch, Sheppard and the Scarborough RT alignment. In 2010, they scaled back plans for three of those four projects, pushing 22.5 kilometres of track and 25 stops off to a nebulous “phase two.”
Then, just as construction was set to proceed, Rob Ford hit the scene. The province immediately became a too-willing partner, working with the new mayor to halt existing plans and put their energies into a single all-underground rail link across Eglinton Avenue. If not for the council uprising led by TTC chair Karen Stintz, this single line would have become the sum total of all local transit investment made in Toronto by this government.
The province shouldn’t wear the blame for the fractious and, at times, totally ridiculous transit battle at Toronto City Hall. But they do deserve criticism for their total failure to show any kind of leadership during the debate.
With a return to the original light rail strategy, the plans for actual construction have been pushed back repeatedly—far beyond what is reasonably acceptable given the political delays. It’s clear that Queen’s Park is hugely reluctant to actually start spending money on these projects. The Sheppard East LRT was supposed to open in 2013 as originally planned. Following council’s transit rumble, that timeline was extended back to 2018. Now, without explanation, Queen’s Park has set a completion target for 2021. That’s nearly a decade removed from the original timeline.
As it stands, the province’s zeal to delay spending money means that Toronto won’t see any new regular service transit completed until at least 2020. And that’s presuming things don’t get thrown further out of whack by the various elections set to take place over the next eight years.
Chiarelli’s comments on the new OneCity transit plan are also incredibly disappointing. The transportation minister made it sound like Stintz and TTC vice-chair Glenn De Baeremaeker had proposed radical changes to approved plans, but that’s a dishonest interpretation. Aside from swapping the planned Scarborough RT conversion for a subway extension—and a handful of extra stops on the coming Pearson Airport rail link—OneCity is consistent with existing with most on-the-books planning priorities. It overlaps relatively seamlessly with Metrolinx’s Big Move strategy.
OneCity is less about the lines drawn on the map and more about creating a long-term municipal funding source for transit projects. It’s about revenue. That a provincial official was so quick to dismiss the idea has to stand as an indication that this government doesn’t see transit beyond the currently-approved projects as much of a priority.
Yes, there’s Metrolinx to consider, and their much-hyped revenue study which is set to come out later this year. But can anyone realistically imagine that Premier Dalton McGuinty will go to bat for revenue tools like road tolls or a dedicated transit sales tax? I’m willing to give him a chance, but I’m not optimistic.
If anything, this morning’s press conference emphasizes the need for dedicated transit cash that doesn’t flow through Queen’s Park. Toronto and its congested streets and crowded buses can no longer afford to count on the whims of its provincial partner to fund and build transit expansion. This city—and, ideally, the region—must be prepared to move forward on its own, with municipal revenue strategies that don’t require provincial support.
The only alternative is a long, frustrating wait.
Cracks in the OneCity Plan
The other angle from this morning: When the OneCity plan was first revealed earlier this week, I held to the optimistic belief that this was a strategy backed by a bunch of councillors on the left and on the centre. Beyond that, I assumed that those working on the plan had at least consulted with provincial officials at Metrolinx and the Ministry of Transportation before bringing this forward.
It seems now that both of those assumptions were at least partially incorrect. I’ve now heard that, for several councillors, this announcement came out of nowhere. And the province’s reaction this morning indicates that they may see this as a surprise intrusion onto Metrolinx’s turf, especially given that their revenue strategy is set to be released in just a few months. These are not good signs for OneCity as a timely, well-considered transit strategy.