Stuck in transit: Ontario budget has lots more money for infrastructure, but little to ease congestion

ANALYSIS: Schools and hospitals get plenty of cash to expand in this year’s budget — transit, however, does not
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Apr 27, 2017
The Liberals have been trumpeting their commitment to transit for a decade, but this year’s budget — which expands education and health care — doesn't include any new transit projects. (Arpad Benedek/iStock)

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On Wednesday night, Hamilton's city council voted 10 to five to go ahead with a light rail transit (LRT) project through the city’s downtown. Mayor Fred Eisenberger and his council didn’t realize it at the time, but that might make Hamilton the last city to get provincial help for a major new transit project for the foreseeable future.

The 2017 budget, presented Thursday at Queen’s Park by Finance Minister Charles Sousa, contains only $1 billion in new cash for rapid transit projects — and that comes from federal transfers, not new provincial money.

Which isn’t to say the government isn’t spending a lot on transit: next year the Liberals will put $7 billion toward transit, including the GO Regional Express Rail (RER) expansion that will substantially increase GO train speed and frequency. That’s no small sum, certainly compared to the $3 billion the province will spend on highways during the same period. At a more than two-to-one ratio, the province’s preference for spending dollars on transit over highways has never been stronger. But this year’s increase in transit spending (the government spent $3.8 billion last year) is entirely due to existing projects entering more expensive phases of construction (such as the GO RER or the Eglinton Crosstown) and not new projects.

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The pause in new transit projects is significant for the Liberals: it's been a marquee issue for the party since at least the last election, and one Premier Kathleen Wynne has made part of her own personal brand as well. She led her party to a majority in 2014 based in large part on a promise to spend $29 billion over 10 years on transportation infrastructure, a number that increased to $31.5 billion in 2015. The 2016 budget included commitments to several new projects, including the Hurontario LRT in Peel Region and Hamilton’s light rail plan, too.

But in the 2017 budget, the government's preferred mode of transit is a cricket riding on a tumbleweed.

When discussing the budget with reporters on Thursday, Sousa denied that the government was getting out of the transit-building business, saying that "there will be room" for projects that aren't yet on the books, though he did not specify how or when. "We're just going through the process," he added.


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So what is the government spending our money on? The Liberals are turning back to the traditional core functions of the province: health care and education. On top of the new pharmacare plan and increased operating funds for hospitals, the government is committing to $9 billion to build new hospitals and renovate existing ones.

The government is also touting $1.2 billion in new money this year for school repairs. That investment will help the Liberals get more serious about another of their promises: capping class sizes at an average of 25 students for grades 4 to 8, and capping full-day kindergarten classes at no more than 30 students this year, and 29 next year.

But the decision to forego new transit developments is likely to make some municipalities anxious — most obviously Toronto, where Mayor John Tory and the council he heads have said they need to move more quickly on major projects like a light rail line on the waterfront or the long-discussed, never-built new subway line to address crowding in the city's core. And if there’s room in Liberal spending plans for cities such as London, which is still arguing over the route of its express bus service, this year's budget doesn’t say so.

When the Liberals announced their intention to transform GO Train service in 2015 they proclaimed it as a major improvement over the traditional morning and evening commuter service the province had traditionally operated, even though that plan also consumed much of the funding municipalities across the GTHA had hoped would go to local priorities.

At the risk of being unfair, the Liberals are nominally committing to planning a high-speed rail line between Windsor and Toronto, offering a vision of faster trains cutting the time from Ontario’s southwest edge to its economic centre in half. The party made the same commitment in 2014, immediately before the last provincial election — a promise that has been collecting dust until now, just over a year before the next election. It’s been proposed numerous times in Canada’s history, in fact, but like every prior occasion, the item in this year's budget has no dollars attached and promises no timeline for actual passenger service.

The election coming in June 2018 means the Liberals can’t really make any promises that extend beyond that timeframe anyway, except of the “elect us and here are the goodies you'll have in store” variety. Hamilton councillors can at least congratulate themselves that their LRT plan made it in under the wire.

Watch The Agenda tonight at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. or live on Twitter (@TheAgenda) for coverage of the 2017 Ontario budget, including an interview with Finance Minister Charles Sousa, reaction from opposition finance critics, and analysis by journalists.

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