Skip to main content

The Premier of Ontario has a message for Ottawa as the federal government prepares to dole out more than $50-billion to fund desperately needed infrastructure improvements: Put up and shut up.

On the eve of last week's meeting of the premiers-only Council of the Federation, Kathleen Wynne said Ottawa should provide the provinces with steady annual sums for infrastructure spending, instead of making them apply for help on a project-by-project basis. "There's an ad-hoc nature the way the federal government does it," Ms. Wynne explained. "We need a more predictable year-over-year plan."

The premiers' joint communiqué echoed that sentiment: "Provinces and territories are in the strongest position to understand their infrastructure priorities and how their capital spending drives economic prosperity, improves the movement of goods and people and builds the foundations for connecting to the global economy."

Ms. Wynne's Transportation Minister, Glen Murray, recently provided a blunter response to anyone who might challenge his supremacy in transit matters: "I'm in charge here."

If anything, however, the spectacle Mr. Murray made of himself as he announced he was getting behind a subway for the Toronto suburb of Scarborough – instead of the already advanced light-rail transit project his government had previously backed – shows why taxpayers should be wary of giving the provinces any more control over infrastructure decisions than they already have.

Ontario's crassly political decision to back Toronto Mayor Rob Ford's ill-considered subway plan – just in time for next Thursday's provincial by-election – was patently transparent. Yet, Mr. Murray shamelessly accused doubters of treating Scarborough residents as "second-class citizens."

There is a class component in the Ford-Murray subway alliance, all right, but it's not the one its main protagonists talk about. The three-stop subway extension would run through lower-density, higher-income areas whose residents tend to vote in bigger numbers and whose property values stand to benefit most from the proximity of a subway station – even if nobody uses it.

The seven-station LRT project would run through lower-income immigrant neighbourhoods and include a stop at a local community college. Students and immigrants depend on public transit more than others – but they don't vote in the same proportion as property-owning suburbanites.

Mr. Murray says he wants the provincial transit agency to look into an alternative subway route that would serve more of those "priority neighbourhoods." But he has not offered any more money than the $1.4-billion Ontario has allotted so far for the Scarborough subway, a sum that Toronto considers $400-million short of what it needs to proceed with the project.

In truth, the politicians have no clue what a subway would cost. While the LRT line could be up and running in a few years for $1.8-billion, the starting point for a subway scheduled to open in 2023 is $2.3-billion, based on a 2010 study. A City of Toronto staff report prepared before this month's council vote to back the subway plan estimates that the "incremental capital cost" has risen by $1.1-billion since then. And that's before incorporating any of Mr. Murray's design requests.

What's more, Mr. Ford and Mr. Murray have gotten behind a Scarborough underground without, as the city staff report notes, any clear understanding of "how a subway extension might impact on the transit network as a whole." At the very least, it would leave less money for other priorities, such as a downtown relief line to lessen subway congestion in the core.

The Ford-Murray plan defies a basic rule of transit investment, namely that (except in rare cases) subways are meant for areas where residential and job density are highest. Everywhere else, LRTs and dedicated bus lanes – though not as sexy as subways – are more cost-effective. Electrified LRTs and buses that run on natural gas are better for the environment, too.

The driving principle of infrastructure investment – transit or roads – is getting the largest number of people to where they need to be to foster economic growth at the lowest financial and social cost. Ottawa has as much at stake as cities and provinces in making the right decisions.

"To the extent that the federal government collects most income taxes – and a large amount of the consumption-tax revenues that will result from higher incomes – it will benefit from infrastructure projects to a greater degree than provincial or municipal governments," the C.D. Howe Institute's Benjamin Dachis notes in a study released this month.

In other words, Mr. Murray, you're not in charge.