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A GO train moves past cars parked in reserved spots at the Mimico GO station on the Lakeshore West corridor, on Jan. 14, 2020. The Globe and Mail obtained internal documents showing that Metrolinx has been pursuing a plan to convert as many as half of its parking spots to paid parking by September, 2022.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Amid Metrolinx plans for a massive shift to paid parking at its commuter rail lots, Ontario Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney said her government is committed to maintaining free places for riders to park.

Ms. Mulroney suggested Tuesday she is open to replacing some unpaid parking with paid spots, but did not answer directly when asked if free parking should remain the majority.

Her comments came after The Globe and Mail obtained internal documents showing that Metrolinx, the provincial agency that operates the GO commuter transit network in Southern Ontario, has been pursuing a plan to convert as many as half of its parking spots to paid parking by September, 2022.

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Metrolinx plans to convert tens of thousands of GO station parking spots from free to paid

The documents reflect growing concern at the agency about the environmental impact and cost of providing free parking spaces – which the agency says can cost up to $40,000 each to build – for its growing ridership base. Charging for parking is seen as one way to encourage behavioural change among riders, along with other efforts, including working with local municipalities, to make stations more accessible by bus, bicycle and foot.

The Metrolinx board of directors backed the proposed shift to more paid parking at an in-camera meeting in September. A communications plan for the first stage has already been devised, the documents showed, and the rollout was set to begin within months. A senior agency executive said Monday, though, that talks with the province were still taking place “to make sure that they are comfortable.”

In comments to reporters at Queen’s Park Tuesday, Ms. Mulroney characterized the process as incomplete, saying that she was waiting to get a report.

“We know that people want free parking at GO rail stations and so those will be there,” she said.

“But as we increase our ridership, and we want to encourage more and more people to use transit and to use GO rail, that will continue to put pressure on parking. And so we’re looking at ways to maximize that. I think that’s what Metrolinx should be doing and I look forward to hearing from Metrolinx and also from members of the community on what they think should be the right mix.”

Metrolinx is one of the biggest parking providers in the country, with more than 90 per cent of spots available for free. One result is that the majority of GO rail customers drive to the station, many of them quite short distances.

If Metrolinx hits its projected ridership growth, and the current proportion of people who drive to the station continues, the agency would need to build another 75,000 to 80,000 parking spaces by 2031.

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“The cost of free parking is now becoming more apparent, in terms of both the congestion at those parking lots and the lost opportunity of what else could be done on those lands,” said Matti Siemiatycki, associate professor of geography and planning at the University of Toronto.

“This provincial government, one of the things they talk about with all the changes to the zoning act and the planning act is that they want to encourage intensification near public transit. And I think this is the beginning of really testing their resolve on that.”

Patricia Wood, a professor in the department of geography at York University and adviser at the transit advocacy group CodeRedTO, said the agency can’t reduce the numbers driving to the station by itself. Many stations are inhospitable to those on foot and bicycle, she noted, and local transit options are often poor.

Provincial New Democrat transit critic Jessica Bell echoed that concern, saying her party supports free parking at GO stations, but that more public funding is needed for local transit.

“We’re not going to be able to build parking lots to, you know, solve our congestion crisis,” she said. “That’s not the solution. What we advocate for is significant investments in public transit and then we should be moving forward options to help people reach their local GO stations and leave their car at home.”

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