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A GO Transit train heads west after leaving Union Station in Toronto. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
A GO Transit train heads west after leaving Union Station in Toronto. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

MICHAEL WARREN

Time for Wynne to have that ‘adult conversation’ about transit Add to ...

R. Michael Warren is a former corporate director, Ontario deputy minister, TTC chief general manager and Canada Post CEO. r.michael.warren@gmail.com

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne’s majority finally allows her to lead an “adult conversation” about transit in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area. Her upcoming budget is an opportunity to refine her transit investment choices and the way they are financed and championed.

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The Liberal’s election platform assigned $15-billion for its 10-year GTHA transit plan. It will likely cost twice that much.

On its own, the promised electrification of all GO train lines – allowing two-way-all-day, 15 minute regional express service – will eat up most of the $15-billion. Added to that are promised GO expansions to Kitchener-Waterloo and Guelph.

Then there is mention of building rapid transit lines in Hamilton, Mississauga, and Brampton; Bus rapid transit for Durham; and Toronto priorities, including an East Bayfront LRT, a TTC Downtown Relief line, a Yonge North Subway expansion to York region and bus rapid transit on Dundas Street.

All these projects can’t be priorities. This list of election “priority projects” has to be costed and scaled back to fit the fiscal realities facing the Wynne government. The budget should identify the most promising investments using sound transit planning criteria.

The financing model proposed by the Liberals in their election platform is not sustainable in the long term. Half the funds are recycled from existing HST and gas taxes. The rest come from more provincial borrowing and yet-to-be-confirmed federal grants. Only 5 per cent comes from “new revenues.”

To be fair, this formula was devised by a minority government facing opposition parties who told voters there were simple, painless solutions to funding expanded transit. The public was left with the impression that they didn’t need to pay directly for more transit. Congestion could be contained without tax increases or mobility pricing (such as road tolls and congestion fees).

These unrealistic attitudes were reflected in pre-election polls about financing tools. In this constrained political environment the Liberals tried to craft a politically saleable funding formula.

Ms. Wynne is a former transportation minister. She knows why a larger part of future transit funding has to come from the users of the roads.

First, they are not currently paying the full cost of using them. Second, international experience shows that expanding rapid transit alone, without comprehensive road pricing, does little to change travel habits, ease congestion or reduce pollution. And, the province and GTHA municipalities desperately need the revenue from mobility pricing to help finance this massive catch-up plan.

Ms. Wynne should signal a willingness to revisit the anti-congestion financing tools that Metrolinx and her Transit Investment Panel suggested. Metro Vancouver is already moving in that direction. Next month’s budget is an opportunity to begin the long-delayed “adult conversation” about transit financing.

Too often in recent years political posturing has prevailed over professional transit planning in the GTHA. The Liberal platform talks about setting priorities based on “rigorous business case analysis”. This is a welcome and overdue commitment.

If Ms. Wynne had used this best-business-case approach and backed the LRT option for Scarborough she could have saved taxpayers more than $1.5-billion.

Meanwhile, each Toronto mayoralty candidate has a different political prescription for improving transit. Before the next mayor comes forward with the city’s latest transit plan, the province should make it clear: financial support will be limited to best-value for-money solutions.

On mega-initiatives like Transit City, the Scarborough subway and transit financing the Liberals have routinely ignored Metrolinx and chosen the most politically palatable path instead. This has wasted capital and undermined Metrolinx’s efforts to plan, champion and deliver the most cost-effective mobility solutions.

The Premier can’t have it both ways. If she wants transit expansion based on value-for-money rather than political whim, she needs to strengthen Metrolinx. Community representation on their board would enable the agency to “speak truth to power” with more impact.

Equally important is a broader advocacy and information role for Metrolinx. Soon there will be more than $20-billon in existing and new transit projects under construction across the GTHA. There will be never-ending construction. Congestion will increase before it eases.

Maintaining the support of frustrated drivers, transit riders and taxpayers’ means keeping them informed about the progress and payoffs from this generation-long undertaking. Metrolinx should be charged with more aggressively championing and reporting on what they implement and operate.

Next month’s budget shouldn’t just regurgitate the Liberal’s election platform. Instead, it should be used to begin to transform GTHA transit promises into a more advanced and affordable 10-year implementation plan.

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