Michael Warren is a former corporate director, Ontario deputy minister, TTC chief general manager and Canada Post CEO.
It's not surprising that some municipal and provincial leaders are pushing back against the idea of forming a Toronto-Waterloo regional transit authority. Nobody likes change, especially politicians whose roles would be diminished by the "Superlinx" agency proposed by the Toronto Regional Board of Trade (TRBT).
What critics fail to understand is that almost every major successful city-region in North America, Europe and beyond have long ago regionalized the operation and expansion of transit services. They enjoy the benefits of a single agency focusing on providing the rider with a transit experience that is seamless, affordable and time-competitive with the car.
Meanwhile, we suffer with 12 different transit operating fiefdoms stretching from Durham to Waterloo. Each have their own boards populated with politicians and appointees vying for attention and competing for a share of scarce, fractured federal, provincial and local funding. Service quality varies, multiple boundaries inhibit ridership and too many major rapid-transit decisions are made without value-for-money analysis.
There are a number of compelling reasons why Premier Kathleen Wynne should pay attention to the TRBT report.
First, this is not a new idea. Historically, the Toronto Transit Commission has expanded to a metro-wide agency by absorbing local transit operators. Regional transit agencies have been tested and refined around the world in cites such as London and Hong Kong.
Here in North America, the very city-regions we are competing with for growth and investment have used regional authorities for decades. The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority started serving Boston and the surrounding 77 cities and towns 50 years ago. Chicago and six adjacent counties established the Regional Transit Authority 40 years ago.
Second, it's time to examine the future role of Metrolinx. It was formed a decade ago on the principle that regional transportation issues require regional solutions. It is supposed to play a critical role in planning and delivering a seamless, integrated transit network. And it has made progress in delivering on the Big Move.
But, because of its limited mandate, Metrolinx has struggled to withstand political interference from above. It's proven helpless to stop multibillion-dollar transit decisions based on political expediency such as the Scarborough subway. It's had difficulty introducing area-wide new technology such as the Presto fare system. And the lack of funding control adds to the concerns about its independence and public credibility.
The province wants to have it both ways: support Metrolinx when it's politically convenient and override it when it's not. Premier Wynne should either absorb the current Metrolinx planning and operating function (GO Transit) back into the provincial transport ministry or strengthen and expand its mandate to include the delivery and financing of all transit services across the region.
The TRBT report outlines some of the proven advantages of a single regional transit agency for the rider. It would deliver a superior rider experience with a single fare, unified schedule, multimodal integration and better first- and last-mile service. Introducing region-wide innovation and smart technologies benefiting the rider and agency would be easier.
A unified authority would be able to fast-track transit expansion with centralized funding and land-use planning. It would have a better chance of minimizing political interference and maintaining long-term plans.
The capital and operating financing model suggested in the report would relieve municipalities from growing operational and capital-funding obligations. It would create the tax and debt room they need to address other pressing local issues. Giving municipalities a voice in decision-making could be achieved by representation on the authority board.
A regional operating agency would allow the province to "regain control and accountability of its transit revenue," the TRBT report says. Fares, current provincial funding and new forms of income from real estate and commercial revenues would give the agency the financial resources to deliver faster and smoother system expansion. The agency's multiyear plans and budgets would be approved by the provincial government.
Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown's promise to upload the cost of maintaining and growing Toronto's subway system by investing $5-billion is simply playing at the edges of the much bigger governance challenge. And this sum is not nearly enough to fund the transit priorities Mr. Brown favours.
Despite progress that's been made, our flawed transit governance structure is hampering our ability to deliver transit services that are competitive with our global rivals. It's time the Wynne government got serious about addressing this long-standing issue.