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The Ontario government is planning major upgrades to the GO Transit system to transform it from commuter rail into a genuine transit system that is useful for all sorts of regional trips, all day long.

Fred Lum/the Globe and Mail

Jonathan English is a Toronto-based PhD candidate in urban planning at Columbia University.

Greater Toronto’s transit will take a symbolic and substantive step backward at the end of March, when the $1.50 discount on transfers between GO Transit and the TTC will be eliminated.

The program, which helped to integrate the region’s two largest transit systems when it was introduced three years ago, cost $22.4-million over the past year. That’s a tiny price to pay in the grand scheme of transit funding in the region. The TTC’s 2020 operating budget is $2.14-billion, by comparison. That cost also doesn’t take into account the increased ridership that was generated by the program, or the reduced need for scarce parking at GO stations. Its success is borne out in the numbers: In 2019-20, nearly 4.5 million more rides were taken than the province had projected.

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Fundamentally, this cut is yet another example of an all-too-common policy making process where there are always billions of dollars available for big capital construction projects and yet desperately needed fare and operational improvements costing a few million dollars a year are deemed unaffordable.

The Ontario government is planning major upgrades to the GO Transit system to transform it from commuter rail – designed for suburbanites to park their cars and ride a train to their 9-to-5 jobs in Toronto’s financial district – into a genuine transit system that is useful for all sorts of regional trips, all day long. Instead of trains mostly concentrated in rush hour, the Regional Express Rail plan would mean electric trains about every 10 to 15 minutes on the Lakeshore, Stouffville, Kitchener and Barrie corridors – although most trains would not go all the way to the outer ends of the lines.

It’s a project that has flown largely under the radar, likely because Metrolinx is still rather hazy on the details, but real regional rail, modelled on Paris’ RER or the S-Bahn networks in German cities, would deliver by far the best bang for the buck in terms of transit spending in the Greater Toronto Area. By using the rail corridors that have all existed for over a century, the project would effectively deliver hundreds of kilometres of new subways criss-crossing the region without having to dig a single tunnel or build a single expensive underground station.

The key to making it all work, however, is closely integrating GO with local transit. Right now, while parking at GO stations is mostly free – although huge garages cost tens of millions to build – riders must pay to transfer to local bus services to get between their homes and the station. This is about as backward a policy as can be imagined.

A look at the TTC shows why. Toronto (along with Montreal) has by far the highest number of riders for every kilometre of subway in Canada and the United States. That’s because it is easy and free to transfer between the bus and the subway. Unlike on many American subways, where most people walk or drive to the station since connecting bus service is limited and transfers aren’t free, Toronto’s subway riders can take the bus to the station from many kilometres away. It means that suburban Toronto subway stations are busier than many stations in Manhattan. That efficient operation makes the TTC the least-subsidized major transit system on the continent. To make GO’s expansion work, the same approach of free and seamless transfers between trains and local transit needs to be followed.

It’s also about fairness. Right now, someone living in North York can ride the bus and subway downtown all for $3.10. Meanwhile, a Rexdale resident who wants to take the bus to the GO train to get to their job downtown has to pay a punitive $6.36 each way – and that’s before the $1.50 fare hike coming next month. Why should some Toronto residents – disproportionately those in marginalized communities – have to pay so much more for transit just because it’s provided by two different agencies?

Instead, GO Transit should be going in the opposite direction: eliminating transfer penalties entirely. A transfer is an inconvenience. You shouldn’t have to pay extra for it. GO is reaching the limits of garage expansion at its stations, and the provincial government has recently mooted plans to charge for parking. Providing free transfers to local transit in both Toronto and the 905 region is by far the cheapest and quickest way to improve transit access and boost GO’s ridership.

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The province is planning to spend as much as $16.8-billion over the coming decades on improving GO Transit, and billions more on subway and LRT projects. And yet it can’t find $22.4-million a year for discounted transfers that help make all those billions in capital spending actually useful? Much-needed operating improvements, such as fair fares, may fly under the radar because they don’t come with a ribbon cutting, but they have by far the best cost-to-benefit ratio for improving the transit experience of everyday riders and for getting people off our overcrowded roads.

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