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The Globe and Mail

Sluggish Toronto-area commutes are hurting Ontario's economy big time

Late afternnon traffic on the westbound Gardiner Expressway.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

The global economy is on unstable footing. Declining value in stock markets, currencies and commodities is having an impact around the world. It's also putting Ontario's economic recovery at risk. Like it or not, we're affected by events and decisions made elsewhere. These are beyond our control.

What isn't beyond our control is the ability to take steps to keep the Toronto region globally competitive. Ensuring that goods and services flow smoothly across the region is one obvious support we could give our economy. Gridlock is now costing our economy $6-billion a year in lost productivity, and this loss is headed toward $15-billion annually.

Yet, while gridlock in the Toronto region continues to get worse, the parties are not rising to the challenge during this provincial election. Gridlock has become the giant elephant in the room. The parties are aware of the problem, and all know it will take courage and leadership to address it.

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The Toronto Board of Trade and its 10,000 members are urging Ontario's campaigning parties to get serious about tackling this problem. We are not alone. A recent Environics poll for the board found that 70 per cent of those surveyed say current party platforms are not putting enough focus on traffic and congestion in the Greater Toronto Area. The poll also found that 76 per cent believe traffic congestion has become worse in the past two years, and 61 per cent say it has reached crisis proportions.

The results underscore a sense of urgency that doesn't seem to register with our parties. For the past three years, we have had a comprehensive and integrated regional transportation plan. At $50-billion, this is a massive undertaking. But driven by the need for votes in a campaign dominated by pocketbook issues and the fear of voter backlash, no party is stepping forward on how to finance it.

More than 100,000 people a year – a population equivalent to the city of Kingston – move into the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA) each year. Within 20 years, a million more cars will be on our roads and highways. Our sluggish commutes are only going to get slower, longer and more congested. And this level of congestion will keep us from our family and friends, increase stress and health issues, reduce levels of investment and job creation, and generally hamper our quality of life.

Failing to address the issue also comes with an additional financial cost.

The longer we take to build what's needed, the more the cost to build it increases. We need only look back to 1990 and a similar regional transportation plan that would have cost $6.2-billion. We can pay to ease our gridlock now, or pay more to do it later.

The longer we take, the more gridlock hurts our economy and quality of life. We have reached a tipping point. Frustration with our commute and the state of our mobility has become the Toronto region's civic conversation.

It's imperative for our next provincial government to reveal how it will finance the regional transportation plan by the spring of 2012. This will require finding new and innovative ways to raise dedicated and sustainable funds for this infrastructure renewal. And it will require political leadership.

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With global economic issues once again affecting the Toronto region's economy, it's even more vital that we deal with the GTHA's traffic congestion. It's now one of the biggest impediments to our global competitiveness. The Toronto region can't afford to stall progress any longer. It's up to us.

Carol Wilding is president and CEO of the Toronto Board of Trade.

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