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Drew Fagan is a professor at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto and a former Ontario deputy minister of infrastructure. Matti Siemiatycki is an associate professor in the Department of Geography and Planning and interim director of the School of Cities at the University of Toronto.

Toronto’s failure to build rapid transit in step with the explosive growth of the city and surrounding region in recent decades is commonly cited as a prime impediment to its emergence as a truly global player.

Transit planning in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) is not uniquely dysfunctional. Other North American cities – New York and Washington come to mind – face challenges outstripping Toronto’s. The GTA is building – the Eglinton Crosstown is one of the largest expansion projects in North America and follows the extension of the University-Spadina line and the rail connection to Toronto Pearson Airport. Dedicated busways have been built throughout the suburbs, Union Station is being revitalized and the King Street transit-priority corridor downtown is a big success.

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But that hardly means we do transit well. In a report for the Institute on Municipal Finance and Governance at the University of Toronto, we argue that what is needed are fundamental changes in two areas: to the hurdles posed by unclear and competing responsibilities among different levels of government, and to the uneasy relationship between technical evidence and politics in decision-making.

The GTA still plans and operates transit much like it did decades ago, with fiefdoms – at any one time, each GTA municipality (including the City of Toronto), the four regional governments, many separate transit operators, the provincial transit agency Metrolinx and the provincial Ministry of Transportation can be working on their own transit plans.

Out of this tangled web of organizations competing for scarce funding, there is too much political gamesmanship. Without a regional transit board that includes politicians representing the different responsible governments, there is no venue to debate priorities and co-ordinate a long-term plan that has the political legitimacy to stick.

In the GTA, Metrolinx is the regional player but it lacks attributes needed for maximum effectiveness, including greater planning and revenue-raising powers. Meanwhile, the Toronto Transit Commission works with transit partners across the GTA to co-ordinate travel, as do other local services, but there isn’t the co-ordination one sees in best-in-class cities – among all service providers and modes of transportation in the region (commuter rail, subway, bus, streetcar, car share, bike lanes).

In that context, the to-ing and fro-ing between the Ontario government and the City of Toronto over responsibility for the TTC subway system (Queen’s Park pushed for months to “upload” – that is, take responsibility for it) appears to be more distraction than solution. The latest twist is that Queen’s Park may drop its upload plan in return for Toronto’s support of the Ontario Line, a provincially proposed subway line, which emerged without consultation.

The focus should not be on one-off political deals. What is needed is co-ordination and integration. Why not consider all aspects of a regional approach that enables the creation of a long-term strategic investment plan with the legitimacy to be implemented? The GTA’s transit problems can’t be solved through backroom negotiations between Queen’s Park and the City of Toronto alone.

The second area where fundamental change is needed is the way evidence is used to inform decision-making. Transit planning is best advanced through top-notch cost-benefit studies that measure the advantages and disadvantages of project proposals and then ranks them based on the social, environmental and economic effects they deliver.

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Such studies aren’t sacrosanct: They are prone to technical errors and optimism biases, which can distort the findings. Still, such studies are the best means we have to employ evidence of a project’s likely benefits to inform decision-making. Those who produce the technical studies within the apolitical public service and related agencies such as Metrolinx need greater assurance through formal government mandates that evidence is thorough and that studies of project alternatives and cost-benefit effects are always carried out independently, and always made public.

This isn’t necessarily the case today. The recently completed cost-benefit study for the Ontario Line shows that when all factors are considered the costs actually slightly outweigh the benefits. It is not clear what measures are being taken to refine the proposal and ensure that $11-billion is well spent.

It is often said that we need to remove the politics to improve transit planning. This is wrong. Politics is the instrument of our democratic system and is an essential and legitimate part of decision-making for projects costing billions of dollars. The key is to ensure that politics is isolated to the correct stages in the decision-making process, and that decisions are made in a transparent way.

The civil service produces the independent studies assessing the merits of proposed projects. The politicians debate and approve the projects that best meet strategic objectives, informed by the technical evidence. When politicians go against the evidence in choosing projects, as is their prerogative, the intervention should be reported publicly along with the rationale for the decision made.

Reforms regarding governance structure and mandates on the use of evidence in decision-making wouldn’t be a panacea for what ails GTA transit. But these changes would bring greater certainty and rationality to a process now marked by uncertainty and confusion.

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