When the Liberal government announced yet another transit panel on Wednesday, it insisted this was not an attempt to delay or avoid a decision on adopting new taxes to pay for transit expansion. Let's be generous and say that is true. Then what, please, is this panel meant to do?
Study the options? Metrolinx, the massive provincial agency that is supposed to advise the government on transit, just spent five years doing exactly that. It pored over every study on the topic. It gathered research from around the world. As its final report put it: "An independent global review was conducted of the best practices among leading regional transportation authorities."
This was an exhaustive, comprehensive review of the options. No one could call it a rush job. Metrolinx's founding legislation obliged it to deliver its Investment Strategy "on or before June 1, 2013." It came out with the document on May 27, 2013.
To seek public input, then? Metrolinx has done this, too. As the agency says in its report: "Metrolinx spent the better part of the past 18 months listening to as many sources of input as possible." It took part in more than 100 meetings and hosted 12 public roundtable sessions. It convened a "residents' reference panel" of 36 ordinary people and sat them down for four weekends to talk about transit taxes and other sources of revenue. It talked to mayors and community groups.
As Transportation Minister Glen Murray might put it, we have had public consultation out the wazoo. The City of Toronto, the CivicAction group and the Toronto Region Board of Trade have all held consultations and produced reports of their own. Meanwhile, the mass transit network in Toronto has fallen far behind those in many other international cities.
Yet, in announcing the panel, to be led by the respected Anne Golden, the government said its role is to "meet with stakeholders and residents in the GTHA to get input" and to "consider other options to fund public transit."
Remember that Metrolinx was created precisely to end this sort of endless shilly-shallying. It was to become the government's transit mastermind. It was to produce solid, definitive advice and take the politics out of transit planning. Today its authority lies in shreds.
Premier Kathleen Wynne now refers to its investment strategy, five years in the making, as mere "suggestions." Questioned by reporters about the new panel, she said "Metrolinx has made some suggestions" and "there has been some skepticism and questions – concerns – about some of those."
It almost seems that the carefully compiled report of the government's principal transit agency is now just one set of ideas among many. Its study of studies is to be restudied by the panel. Even under good people like Ms. Golden and vice-chairman Paul Bedford – no pussycats – it is hard to imagine what possible good that can do. Doesn't Mr. Murray's Ministry of Transportation have people who can look over the Metrolinx report?
What is required is not more research or more public input, much less another panel. What is required is a decision. Ms. Wynne made some encouraging noises earlier this year about the need for new revenue streams to pay for transit expansion. It seemed possible, just possible, that the government might seize the day and do something truly bold. If this panel is a sign of cold feet, it will be a crashing disappointment.