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Benjamin Dachis is associate director, research, at the C.D. Howe Institute. His new commentary on transit policy in Ontario was recently published at www.on360.ca.

Many of the challenges that urban regions face spill over the boundaries of municipal governments – none more so than in the current Ontario debate over public transit. The incoming government would be wise to let cities solve regional transit issues rather than to force amalgamation or uploading to a single regional transit agency.

However, there’s a clear need to move toward consolidating some parts of the disparate transit operators across the Toronto region into a single entity. For example, a single planning agency could integrate fares across the region, fixing the current practice of many bus lines stopping at municipal borders and requiring passengers to pay a separate fare when they cross them. A single large transit agency would likely excel most at executing large regional plans.

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But it will likely be less successful at getting the local details right, such as which corner of a road to put a bus stop because there is a seniors residence there. Local politicians, who are accountable to residents of a neighborhood every few years, can help bridge that divide.

A better approach is to create a single regional transit agency from the bottom-up, led by municipalities. The core of any reform centres on the board of directors of Metrolinx. The first step in such a plan would be for the province to restore the role of municipal governments on the board of Metrolinx akin to what existed before 2009. But an all-politician board would have no transit-specific expertise. The province can solve that problem by having a combination of policy makers and experts on the board.

It can then create subsidiary operations to Metrolinx that, while reporting to the board with many regional elected officials, has area-specific expertise. For example, there could be a corporation with a mandate on planning and capital investment. Another company could specialize in bus and transit delivery, etc.

Some of the largest transit investments happening now would fit this model nicely. For example, the new Eglinton Crosstown LRT line will be owned by Metrolinx. However, it has signed a 10-year agreement with the TTC to operate it. The TTC is one of North America’s best transit operators, winning the award of transit agency of the year in 2017. But the TTC does not have the remit to plan for new projects, such as subway expansions, or operate buses outside of Toronto’s borders. Nor has it been great at building new projects, after suffering delays and cost overruns on a subway expansion to York Region, along with being part of a bungled renewal of Union Station in downtown Toronto. If the TTC operated under contract to Metrolinx, the TTC would be able to operate its routes just as it does today. It could also expand its operations outside Toronto if it can prove it’s the best operation for the job.

There are examples Toronto can look to. One model to follow is Transport for London (TFL), which successfully operates transit in the U.K.’s largest city. Its board is chaired by the Mayor of London and includes diverse representation, such as from workers, disability advisers, and industry experts. It also contracts out the delivery of many of its bus routes to private operators.

TFL shows how to combine a board that represents the people that ride on transit with the area-specific expertise to oversee operations. TFL has a plethora of subsidiary companies, ranging from property management companies to rail line-specific operating companies to financial services operations.

Toronto policy makers don’t have far to look for such a model. In Vancouver, the provincial legislation lays out that a Mayor’s Council made up of representatives from each of the region’s 21 municipalities appoints most of the board of Translink, the regional transit co-ordinating body. Translink has many subsidiary companies that operate transit services under contract. That operating flexibility allows cities to operate their own transit, with additional local services if they like, as West Vancouver does. It also allows the flexibility to have private contracting for bus services.

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The Ontario transit debate has centered on amalgamation as a solution to our regional co-ordination problem. Instead, we should look to a middle path of empowering cities to solve regional problems together.

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