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Tony Keller is The Globe and Mail’s editorial page editor
Tony Keller is The Globe and Mail’s editorial page editor

TONY KELLER

What if we took transit out of the hands of politicians? Add to ...

If we took public transit out of the hands of politicians, would we get better transit decisions? We certainly couldn’t get worse.

You know it’s election season when Ontario politicians start announcing new transit megaprojects. The slimmer their electoral chances, the more misguidedly mega the project.

And so it was that last week, Premier Kathleen Wynne and her Liberal government announced a plan to build high-speed rail between Toronto and London, passing through Kitchener-Waterloo, and including an eventual extension to Windsor.

Cost: An estimated $21-billion.

There are currently just seven departures each day on Via Rail from Toronto to London, which is a hint that this may not be the most in-demand travel itinerary. The trip takes slightly more than two hours; high-speed rail would reduce that to one hour and 13 minutes. With a straight face, Ontario Transport Minister Steven Del Duca pitched this as a solution to the high cost of housing, allowing long-distance commuting to Toronto.

It’s hard to see how spending billions of dollars slightly reducing travel times on a route with middling demand makes economic sense. It’s difficult to believe that this deserves to be Ontario’s most expensive infrastructure project. But such objections are, for the moment, irrelevant. This train runs on politics.

There’s an election next spring, and there are more than half a dozen seats up for grabs in Kitchener-Waterloo and London. If the Liberals can swing those, it could make the difference between defeat and four more years.

This is how transit policy has been made in and around the Greater Toronto Area, since forever. Too often, transit announcements are about political needs, not commuter demand. Politics hijacks the bus (or in this case, the railway to “Ontario’s Innovation SuperCorridor”) and takes it on a long, costly detour. Sometimes the hijackers are federal. Sometimes they’re provincial. Often they’re municipal. The intended destination is the promised land, but usually it’s only office-holders who get there.

Politics is how Canada’s largest and most public-transit-dependent city ended up with a subway on Sheppard Avenue that carries fewer passengers than downtown’s King Street streetcar.

Politics is why a plan to improve transit service to Scarborough, at reasonable cost, was transformed into a plan to reduce transit service to Scarborough, at unreasonable cost. It’s why most Toronto politicians, from Mayor John Tory on down, oppose a cost-and-benefit comparison of the alternatives to the one-stop, $3-billion-plus Scarborough subway.

Politics is why Queen’s Park is eager to announce an extension of the Yonge subway north of Toronto and into the vote-rich 905 area – even though extending the at-capacity Yonge line makes as much sense as pointing a high-pressure hose at an overflowing bathtub.

Politics is why the Liberal provincial government is focusing so much of its infrastructure plan on expanding GO Transit’s rail network, which primarily serves the suburban 905 and 519 areas. Their populations dwarf the 416 – but central Toronto’s public-transit demand is far larger, because it’s dense enough for people to live car-free lives. The permanently penurious TTC carries seven-and-a-half times as many passengers as GO, and TTC’s five busiest bus routes together carry as many people as the entire GO train network’s 452 kilometres of track.

And politics is why the impending launch of the federal Canada Infrastructure Bank, and the promise of free money from Ottawa to entice the private sector into building otherwise unprofitable infrastructure, has the Ontario government suddenly acting as if priority No. 1 is high-speed rail. Yes, this train has already been announced at least four times in the past three years. Yes, each time it’s widely assumed it will never be built. But like a train running downhill, political promises have a way of developing their own momentum.

What if we could get politics out of public transit? What if, instead of handing transit policy to the whims of politicians, decisions about spending and service levels were in the hands of a truly independent agency – the transit equivalent of the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board or the Bank of Canada? Metrolinx was supposed to be a step in that direction; instead, it’s about as arms-length from Queen’s Park as the Trump Organization is from the U.S. President.

Public transit doesn’t have to be run by a private business. But it has to be run by an organization that operates like a business, responding to market demand – actual customers – not political demands. Otherwise, the GTA’s transit mess, marked by big mismatches between ribbon cuttings and actual riders, will only get worse.

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