What the 2018 election could mean for your commute

OPINION: Land-use and transportation issues may not be top of mind for most voters — but they should be
By John Lorinc - Published on December 14, 2017
Toronto subway trains in winter
The Tories want to upload Toronto’s subway system and pump $5 billion into the construction of new lines in the GTA. (bilge/iStock)

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​Judging by Patrick Brown’s snappy new election platform, it seems safe to predict that the finer points of regional land-use and transportation planning won’t play a starring role in next year’s provincial election. But there are elements in the party’s headline promises, and in the fine print, that suggest Brown’s Tories will be running a campaign that promises substantive changes in these domains — which have long been among the Liberals’ most active policy files.  

As has been widely reported, the Tories want to upload Toronto’s subway system to the provincial government and pump $5 billion into the construction of new lines in Greater Toronto — a conspicuously open-ended promise that could mean an extension north along Yonge Street into Richmond Hill or the long-delayed Relief Line, which is meant to address over-crowding on downtown lines.

Less advertised were other enticements: $1.2 billion to the City of Toronto to offset the expense of the controversial Scarborough subway, as well as provincial funds to match federal grants for more subways. At the regional level, there are uncontroversial commitments to continue the Liberals’ efforts to create all-day/two-way GO service and stimulate development around rapid-transit stations. But Brown’s program also calls for planning-policy reforms that seem to signal an intention to expedite the development of single-family housing while watering down the regional land-use rules, embedded in the Liberals’ Places to Grow Act, that promote intensification in built-up areas.

Interestingly, the platform contains no mention of Metrolinx — an omission that may offer a hint as to how the Tories view one of the most conspicuously politicized agencies in the province.

Add it all up, and it’s not unreasonable to conclude that if Brown wins, he intends to introduce sweeping changes to both Metrolinx and the Liberals’ much-touted regional-planning framework, which has sought to curb runaway sprawl and its related ills in the Greater Golden Horseshoe (GGH).

The Tories will certainly be able to capitalize on public angst over gridlock, sluggish progress on rapid transit, and skyrocketing housing costs that have been blamed, incorrectly, on the Liberals’ attempts to limit the growth of greenfield subdivisions.

The problem facing Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals on all these fronts is that the government’s track record over the decade since these measures have come into effect isn’t great.

This past June, Queen’s Park released the latest version of the GGH Growth Plan, which extends to 2041, when it estimates the region will be home to 13.5 million people. Then, in September, Metrolinx published a draft 2041 Regional Transportation Plan, which lays out its strategy for completing a mostly integrated $45 billion network of regional rail, subways, LRTs, and buses.

The Growth Plan acknowledges that the earlier iterations of these policies largely failed to drive intensification activity into areas served by rapid transit — a key failing. Indeed, a 2014 provincial evaluation offered a tough verdict: of the 333 rapid transit stations in the GGH (including GO bus terminals), almost nine in 10 are situated in areas without the density required to support higher order transit.

The latest version of the Growth Plan aspires to rectify this problem by requiring GGH municipalities to sharply increase the number of jobs and people located along existing and planned transit corridors. Yet this objective comes from the same government that backed the Scarborough subway extension (estimated to cost $3.3 billion, a sum equivalent to 7 per cent of the total planned investment for the next 25 years for the entire region). That contentious line will have only one stop and pass deep beneath neighbourhoods that are protected from intensification by the city’s official plan.

What’s more, a recent critique of Metrolinx’s 2041 plan by Pamela Blais and Marcy Burchfield for the Neptis Foundation concluded that the $45 billion in planned investment will barely dent gridlock, and increase transit usage across the region by just half a percent. “Under the proposed RTP,” Blais and Burchfield note, “there will be 3 million more cars on the roads during this peak period every day — almost 50 per cent more than today. Congested travel during the peak is expected to increase 122 per cent.”

As they point out, the failure is a result of two factors: Current land-use plans don’t really direct growth in ways that create enough density to support a significant shift to transit. And Metrolinx’s RTP isn’t promoting investment in those areas with the most potential to entice drivers to take transit.

Given that the Tories’ platform seems intent on rolling back some of the Liberals’ admittedly modest regional-planning gains and then perpetuating the Liberals’ highly politicized practice of underwriting costly subways in low-density but vote-rich suburbs, the prognosis for smart planning in the region seems grim.

Here are some policy issues that voters shouldn’t overlook as the election season draws near:

Breaking up the TTC

The Tories’ pledge to upload the region’s subway lines and inject cash into new construction may well get them some votes from 905 voters eager to see more transit service in their communities. But separating the TTC’s services is a dicey proposition. For all it may have its detractors, the agency is internationally renowned for integrating its bus, streetcar, and subway networks. If the subways end up being operated by Metrolinx or some successor agency, that intimate operational relationship will cease to exist, creating risks for commuters who depend on timely and reliable service.

Such a move would also make the system an outlier. In large metropolitan areas like London, New York, and Berlin, single agencies operate all the various transit modes, either directly or through subsidiaries. Indeed, one of the long-standing complaints about GTA transit is that agencies like the TTC, GO, and Mississauga Transit have historically struggled to coordinate operations and fares.


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Expansion capital

Many GGH transit debates devolve into bitter regional fights between those advocating expansion into underserved suburban areas and those pushing for additional service in populous core areas with over-taxed transit routes. Both kinds of growth are important. But fractured political decision-making and a chronically starved funding model have encouraged factionalism instead of an approach that would promote investment right across the region, including in its urban core. The provincial Liberals have contributed to this dynamic, and there’s little evidence that Brown’s Tories would do anything different.

Lack of predictable funding is a clear culprit. Just before the last provincial election, the Liberals iced a proposal for establishing revenue tools to finance the Big Move, as Metrolinx’s long-range transit plan has been known for almost a decade. In cities like New York and London, by contrast, the regional transit agencies have ready access to sources of revenue other than fares and advertising. New York’s MTA can issue bonds, for example (Metrolinx is prohibited from borrowing), while Transport for London draws not only on national and local grants, but also on levies paid by local businesses and commercial property owners that benefit from the construction of new transit projects, such as the massive Crossrail line.

Yet if either the Liberals or the Tories were serious about promoting a more rational system for underwriting transit projects, they could begin to defuse the us-versus-them political dynamic by passing legislation that requires all new funds to be invested simultaneously in projects aimed at adding service to newer outlying areas (e.g., the proposed LRT in Brampton) and in projects aimed at alleviating over-crowding on existing routes in core areas.

The megazone problem

According to planner Pamela Blais, three so-called employment megazones — around 404 and Highway 7, the Vaughan Metropolitan Centre, and Pearson International Airport— account for 540,000 jobs, which is more than the entire downtown core. They also generate roughly a million car trips each day. The Airport Megazone (AMZ), says Blais, produces more traffic than all of downtown Toronto, and, with about 300,000 jobs, has Canada’s second-largest concentration of places of employment (the airport accounts for only a sixth of all those jobs).

Yet Metrolinx’s 25-year-plan all but ignores these three megazones, and the latest GGH regional growth plan is only marginally more attentive. Neither has explicitly identified these three areas of the GGH as places that could attract investment or intensify and support new, more innovative forms of transit that would take some of the pressure off the region’s road network. Transit planning for the AMZ is focused on connecting the airport to the downtown, but Blais’s research has found that the bulk of daily work trips to the area come from Mississauga and other municipalities in the western GGH.

Fragmented jurisdictions are partly to blame for the lack of concerted planning. Each of the three megazones straddles municipal boundaries, and is served by local and regional transit agencies that don’t necessarily coordinate their efforts. Blais argues that provincial planners and Metrolinx should be giving the employment megazones special attention. “[These areas] contain a lot of firms and there’s a huge potential, from an economic perspective, to build on that,” she says. “These are the very things regional plans should be addressing.”              

Next year — almost 15 years after Dalton McGuinty’s Liberals swept to victory partially because of mounting alarm about sprawl — GGH residents will have to choose between a government with a lackluster record, an opposition with a backward-facing plan, and a third party, Andrea Horwath’s NDP, which has virtually nothing to say about regional growth planning in the GGH.

Whichever party wins the next election, it seems we’ll be stuck in traffic for many years to come. 

John Lorinc is an urban affairs journalist and senior editor at Spacing magazine.

Correction: The critique of Metrolinx’s 2041 plan was authored by both Pamela Blais and Marcy Burchfield, not solely by Blais, as an earlier version of this article stated. TVO.org regrets the error.

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