Milton, Ont., used to be a small town outside Toronto. Now it's a sprawling suburb of new subdivisions, Canada's fastest-growing community. The big issue, as in towns around it, is the commute.
Traffic bottlenecks at James Snow Parkway by 7 a.m. Gridlock on Highway 401 used to start in Mississauga, but now stretches back another 20 kilometres to Guelph Line. The GO Train station's parking lot is packed. Residents want more trains.
Those used to be the mayor's problem, or the region's, or sometimes the provincial MPP's. Now it's a federal issue.
The 401 runs through the largest concentration of swing ridings in Canada, dozens of seats between Brantford and Belleville that mostly went Conservative blue in 2011, but then Liberal red in Ontario's 2014 provincial election. Federal politicians get an earful from commuters. And not just around Toronto.
Traffic and transit are big headaches in B.C. ridings with three-way federal races. In Metro Vancouver, there's a referendum on increasing sales taxes for transit. In Montreal, crumbling bridges and blocked traffic are a headache in ridings where the NDP and Liberals compete. The next election will be won or lost in commuter belts.
That's one reason last week's federal budget included a public transit fund that will ramp up to $1-billion, albeit five years from now – a fund structured so that multi-billion-dollar projects can be announced quickly, as soon as this year, even though Ottawa's money will come later.
Mr. Harper's opponents were planning to make an issue of it. Justin Trudeau's Liberals had signalled that infrastructure funding will be a big part of their election platform, touted as a way to both stimulate growth and supply needed infrastructure for things like transit.
It's clear that if any party can wrap its promises into a credible package to help commuters, it would be a political juggernaut. It's the cry among swing riding residents. That's why Ontario tabled a provincial budget last week with $31.5-billion over 10 years for transportation infrastructure, pledging to ease rush-hour traffic.
The regional council in Halton, the patch of suburbs between Toronto and Hamilton that includes Milton, asked residents last December what issues matter most. The top three were infrastructure and roads, traffic, and transit.
Many GTA cities that mushroomed quickly had their own local traffic jams, with roads too narrow for the bigger populations. Halton regional chair Gary Carr recalls residents along Milton's Derry Road trapped in their driveways on the first day of school, after the first rush of local development, and before the region insisted developers pay upfront for six-lane thoroughfares.
At Milton's GO train station, the 1,088-space parking lot is packed, with cars left in laneways, long before before the last train leaves at 8:30 a.m. Missing it means an hour and forty-five minutes on the bus.
Shakeel Rao, a 50-year-old IT architect from Kitchener, drives to Milton's station because there are only two morning trains from Kitchener, and with all the stops, they take two hours to downtown Toronto. Driving might take almost three. "I've got a job in downtown Toronto. So if I start driving all the way, it doesn't make any sense. So I drive up to here, and then I take the train."
He, like many others, think there should be more trains, express trains, and better parking and infrastructure. If a federal political party offered to do something about it, he'd care. "For sure," he said. "Because it makes your life easier, right?"
Maybe. Certainly the federal political parties have an interest in making you thinking they will do that – soon.
The public transit fund in Mr. Harper's budget is ingenious on that score. It is set up not as a fund to pay a share of project as it is built, but instead to offer a stream of revenue over the life span of the project. If Ottawa plans to pay for a third of a $6-billion train line built in 2020, it would normally pay $2-billion in 2020 – but under the new fund, a private company would finance it, and Ottawa might pay $70-million a year for 30 years.
That would allow the launch of dozens of multi-billion-dollar projects in the next few years. Officials in Mr. Harper's government argued it could fund every major transit project in the country. Of course, the problem is that it is still debt, with future governments paying for projects announced now.
The transit problems aren't just money. In Milton, the local MP, who happens to be Transport Minister Lisa Raitt, has been trying to persuade CP Rail to give up the track time for more GO Trains, because freight currently has priority. New trains and subways have to go where people use them.
And for political parties, the challenge is convincing swing-riding voters their promises of money will actually improve their commute.