The full transcript of our interview with the premier on the state and future of transit in Toronto.
Ontario is gearing up for a major debate about how to pay for a major round of new transit infrastructure, a set of projects collectively called The Big Move. Metrolinx, the regional agency responsible for transit planning, is expected to deliver its strategy for raising the requisite $34 billion on May 27, 2013. We sat down with the premier recently to talk about that strategy, and about the transit issues that plague the Toronto area. Here is the transcript of our discussion.
Torontoist: Everyone from transit activists to the Board of Trade keeps saying we’re decades behind in our infrastructure. How do you think we got to this point? Why has it taken us this long to have this conversation, and why do other cities—L.A., famously, loves cars and had a referendum on transit funding—seem to have made more progress?
Kathleen Wynne: I think there are a couple of factors. I think that [for a time] the congestion wasn’t that bad—people could get around. There was a perception that there was space, that our space was infinite, and we were never going to have to worry about this. I grew up in York Region, and my generation, we never thought about taking buses. Until we got our drivers’ licences we could take a bus down Yonge Street, but [otherwise] it just wasn’t an issue, and everybody had cars. The culture hadn’t shifted: there wasn’t enough density, there weren’t enough people who were expecting that they would have alternatives.
I think we have that now. I think we have so many people from other countries who have lived with better transit than we have, and just the absolute density of population has pushed us. So I think there’s been that shift.
The other thing is that unless there is a public outcry, unless there is pressure from the public, investing in infrastructure that takes a long time to build is very difficult for politicians. It’s not something we do as a matter of course. It’s not difficult to invest in roads because everybody can see the roads and everybody needs roads and that’s part of our culture. But investing in water pipes and investing in systematic transit is difficult because it takes a long time to complete, and you don’t cut a ribbon. I’m fighting for projects right on which I will not cut the ribbons, and I know that. I think it’s the right thing to do nonetheless.
The Big Move is a plan about building things. It leaves unanswered the question about how we will pay to operate them. The province used to pay approximately 50 per cent of the TTC’s operating cost. That changed a while ago, and many people think that’s permanently hobbled the TTC—and the TTC is going face added pressure as these Big Move projects come online. Do you think the province needs to reintroduce contributions to the TTC’s operating costs?
Well first of all we’re not just talking about the TTC—we’re talking about all of the regional transit systems, and so I think that it’s really important that we open the discussion about how we get the transit built. Part of that obviously has to be what can we afford to run—we collectively—and what is the relationship going to be. I’m well aware of the operating issue, and I think that it will be an ongoing conversation. I don’t think we’ve got an answer on that one yet.
Will you be asking Metrolnx to offer a strategy for that?
I don’t know if the minister [of transportation] has been talking to Metrolinx about that at this point, but it’s certainly something that’s part of the broader discussion about transit in the region.
The other reality is that the $350 million in gas tax money that is distributed across the province—part of that is used for operating dollars in some circumstances.
You were minister of transportation when some Transit City projects were scaled back or delayed due to the economic crisis at the time. We’re still dealing with the fallout from that economic crisis—we still run a deficit provincially—and you deal with the added pressure of being in a minority government. In the face of those pressures, and given that history, what assurance can you offer Torontonians that you won’t at some point say ‘sorry, we need to pull the plug on some of these lines we’ve been planning’?
I have no intention of doing that. I have no intention of pulling back on my commitment. It’s the reason that I’m working to build consensus around a dedicated revenue stream now. There will be an ongoing discussion about which lines, the order in which they’re built—because Metrolinx reviews its plans and makes those changes on a somewhat regular basis—but my commitment is to work to build the consensus to take action on finding dedicated revenue streams, and that’s so we can build the transit that we need.
Do you understand why some people are unconvinced? Having seen operating funding lost, having seen an Eglinton subway tunnel be dug and then filled in again—do you understand why people might be skeptical?
Yes. I believe that people’s confidence in the ability of government to follow through on transit building is rightly low. I know that we’ve got a history—it’s not just in the last 10 years, in the last 10 years we’ve actually been building transit—but there’ve been 40 years when that hasn’t happened, and you’re right, there’ve been stops and starts. I believe that the work we’ve done over the last 10 years should give people some confidence that we are committed to this, that we’re a government that believes that this is important, and that I’m a premier and a member of provincial parliament for whom this is a priority.
You’ve indicated that you very much want all the municipal governments to be on board, but that you also view it as your responsibility as premier to make sure that this gets done, period.
In order to get this done though, you need to work with someone from across the aisle. How much political capital are you willing to expend on this? Would you, for instance, be willing to make it a confidence motion?
I have said that if this an issue that brings us down as a government I’m willing to take that risk, because I think it’s that important, in the same way that I think infrastructure spending across the province is important. Municipalities need a roads and bridges fund, they need to know that the province is going to support them in that infrastructure deficit that they’re dealing with. I am absolutely committed to all those infrastructure initiatives.
You’re often described as a progressive, as tending to the left end of the Liberal Party. How important is it to you that whatever revenue tools we come up with are progressive and means-tested in some way?
It’s very important to me that people have choice, whether it’s as a driver having another option or a non-driver having a transit option. And it’s very important to me that people know where the money is going. There’s a whole range of tools that are being talked about right now, so I think we need to let that discussion play out. I’m not going to rule certain ones in and certain ones out—I think it’s really healthy that we have the whole conversation.
But prescinding from asking you to judge about any particular tool, are you committed to working within whatever Metrolinx ends up recommending, or would you consider going outside their list?
Again, I’m not going to pre-empt that process. I know that the folks who are writing the report at Metrolinx are taking into account all the other thinking that’s going on, so I suspect that they will distill all of that material and that we’ll see a broad range of options.
You’re going to need a partner in all this, and based on his comments it’s probably not going to be Tim Hudak—it seems more likely right now that it’ll be Andrea Horwath, and she’s expressed some concerns about the notion of having a new tool rather than, say, having a portion of the income tax set aside for this. If Andrea Horwath looks at this list when it comes out and says ‘You know what, I’m committed to transit, I want to work with you, but these tools aren’t right for the people I represent. Can we talk about alternatives?’—is that a conversation you’re willing to have?
If she’s willing to have that conversation and put some possibilities on the table.
But I think to suggest that we can just divert money that’s already in the treasury to build transit—we need a new revenue stream. This isn’t money we can find within the treasury right now.
I don’t know where she’s going to land. My hope is that she’ll work with us and I’m going to let that process roll out.
Recently some York region representatives said that we need to build the Richmond Hill extension of the Yonge subway immediately, but Karen Stintz maintains that we need to do the Downtown Relief Line first…
I don’t believe we can do the Yonge Street line [right away], and I’ve said this to people from Richmond Hill: I don’t think we can build another north-south extension until we have a relief line. I think having more traffic funnelling into the Yonge line will be problematic. I agree with Karen Stintz that we need the relief line.
This interview has been edited and condensed.