Walk With Joy: Awakening transit advocacy
It’s been a while, but frustration with transit gridlock in the Toronto Region is finally boiling over again.
Distracted by the shiny objects of Toronto Mayor John Tory’s “Smart Track,” and the provincial government’s expanded version of this idea — the full electrification of the diesel commuter network — transit advocates went into a four-year hibernation. No doubt the fatigue of several bold and failed attempts to deal with regional transit’s number one challenge, dedicated taxes, contributed to this deep sleep.
In this vacuum of advocacy, funding for transit operations has flatlined, as has ridership. While mounting evidence piles up against the Scarborough subway screw-up, politicians of all stripes have doubled-down on a plan that cannibalizes higher priorities such as Scarborough LRT, the eastern relief line, and waterfront transit.
Even pleas for the simple coordination of the 10-year reviews of the province’s regional growth plan and Metrolinx regional transportation plan were ignored, resulting in two plans that barely speak to one another. Incredibly, the resulting vision out to 2041 is to tread water with a formal goal to freeze the percentage of ridership, not increase it.
To pull us out of this dangerous slumber, the Toronto Region Board of Trade is ringing an alarm bell which has the potential to reignite critical discussion about how we must fix our region’s mobility crisis. The Board is offering up a range of prescriptions to address the multiple challenges of funding shortages, systems coordination, fare integration, technology implementation, and the leveraging of real estate development.
While the Board’s marquee idea to upload and amalgamate the region’s transit authorities into one provincial crown corporation could create more problems than it solves, its intentions are noble. We absolutely need to elevate the structures and supports around regional transit well beyond the status quo patchwork of collective failure.
In getting governance right, we truly need a made-in-Toronto model that reflects the very unique fabric of our urban region that is a hybrid of pre-war city and care dependent post-war suburbia. Unlike transit systems in Asia and Europe that service high density and transit-oriented metropolises throughout, the urban structure of the Toronto region is very asymmetrical. Nowhere is this urban lopsidedness more obvious than transit. Over 80 per cent of ridership is concentrated in the central city with much less than 50 per cent of the population and just nine per cent of the total urban area. As such, there is merit in the idea that we maintain both local and regional transit authorities, and not sacrifice the former to fix the latter.
Importantly, the Board’s transit advocacy seeks to revive the role of municipal leadership within the regional transit equation. Unbelievably, not a single mayor or councillor today wakes up in the morning with any responsibility to think or act regionally — not on transit or any other area of jurisdiction. It’s a fact that has no doubt contributed to the alarming parochialism plaguing regional progress. Perhaps the most important recommendation of the Board’s advocacy is the focus on the opportunity to leverage real estate development around transit infrastructure. This priority was the overwhelming consensus of an expert panel discussion the Board recently hosted. It’s an idea, however, that doesn’t necessitate the full amalgamation of all transit operations and capital investment: it could easily become a function of the existing Metrolinx model.
Surprisingly downplayed is the need for significant new dedicated tax revenue sources, once the centrepiece of the Board’s transit advocacy. Nothing threatens the opportunity to reverse the decades-long neglect of transit infrastructure than the ongoing under-funding of capital and operating needs in all parts of the region. No amount of land-value capture extracted from transit oriented development — or debt financing — will negate the need to secure massive new funding sources.
At the end of the day our municipal and provincial governments are accountable for fixing regional gridlock, not lobby groups. But governments rarely do right without a push by external stakeholders. In this context — and in this double election year — the Board of Trade’s re-emergence into the realm of regional transit advocacy offers to wake up a regional priority at a most critical time.