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Depoliticize Toronto-area transit planning, head of trade board urges

Carol Wilding, president and CEO of the Toronto Region Board of Trade, singled out Scarborough as a particularly egregious example of doing transit planning the wrong way.

Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

As Toronto mayoral candidates tout their transportation ideas in an election race that seems likely to hinge on transit, the regional business lobby has issued an urgent call to depoliticize the planning process.

Carol Wilding, the outgoing head of the Toronto Region Board of Trade, said a stable provincial government, $15-billion in promised funding and the prospect of "renewal" at city halls in the Toronto area offer a rare opportunity for progress on transit.

But there are also new warnings from the Conference Board of Canada that congestion is holding back Toronto's competitiveness. And Ms. Wilding warned that the mistakes of the past must not be repeated.

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"We can't let comprehensive planning be battered by shifting political agendas," she told reporters on Wednesday as the board issued a report titled Build Regional Transportation Now. "Metrolinx must be empowered and freed from political interference to lead."

Metrolinx is the provincial agency tasked with overseeing transit on a regional basis. It once had municipal leaders on its board, but they were replaced in a bid to make the agency less susceptible to pressure. But the political framework under which Metrolinx operates gives ultimate authority to the province.

"We need to take our decisions faster and we need to have decisions that are based on sound business cases and [make them] stick," Ms. Wilding said. "This is the right time to move to that next evolution of what our governance model should look like."

In a statement, provincial Transportation Minister Steven Del Duca responded to the report by reiterating the government's focus on delivering projects that will improve commuting and quality of life.

"Our government knows that decisions must be made transparently, be based on solid business case criteria and that our shared goal remains creating an integrated transportation network across the [Greater Toronto and Hamilton area]," he said.

A Metrolinx spokeswoman said the agency was studying the board of trade report to see if there were lessons to be learned. She would not comment on the alleged politicization of transit planning.

Muddying the planning waters in Toronto are the would-be mayors, who are responding to a chorus of concerns about transportation with platforms that are a mishmash of projects. Some of what the candidates have promised would be done by the Toronto Transit Commission; other elements are the responsibility of Metrolinx and not within the powers of a mayor to make happen.

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The report comes on the same day as the plea from the Conference Board of Canada for greater focus on Toronto transportation to help attract financial services jobs.

"Toronto compares favourably to other Canadian and international cities for most of the factors that attract corporate headquarters," Michael Burt, the board's director of industrial economic trends, said in a statement. "However, transportation infrastructure stands out as the one important area needing improvement."

The board of trade report – which called as well for a regional transit network and fare system – did not recommend a particular governance model. Instead, it pointed to other cities that have better track records of building transit, with examples including London, New York, Stockholm and Zurich.

"The politicians need to be involved at the right time," Ms. Wilding said. "But if you're going to actually build this and build it effectively, you've got to make those decisions stick. You need the structure, you need the discipline to make that happen and not be based on polls and swings in votes."

She singled out Scarborough as a particularly egregious example of doing it wrong. After much debate and political meddling, plans for light rail in the east-end area were scrapped for a much more expensive subway extension. In her speech, she called it a "mess," talking about having "wasted" money and said there was no apparent business case for the subway.

"That is the poster child of how we don't want to build transit and how our governance doesn't [work] and where, I say frequently to my colleagues, where our muscle failed," Ms. Wilding said. "You know, a governance structure should work in those really tough situations, that's when you know your governance is working, if it withstands in a really tough decision-making process, and it didn't."

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