National Public Transit Strategy Still Missing from this Election
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National Public Transit Strategy Still Missing from this Election

photo by MSVG from the Torontoist Flickr Pool

Last week, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities launched a campaign called Cut My Commute, which calls on federal parties to curb urban congestion by committing more tax dollars to public transportation. The FCM estimates that lengthy commutes cost Canada upwards of $5 billion each year, and Toronto was dead last in a report recently released by the Toronto Board of Trade that ranked cities according to commutes, pegging the city’s average commute at a frightful 80 minutes [PDF]. And it’s no wonder. As the only country in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development that doesn’t have a long-term national transit funding strategy, how can we expect our public transportation systems to be up to snuff?
Too often transit projects are proposed, debated, and delayed—sometimes for over a decade—as different levels of government attempt to hash out a payment structure. Consistent, reliable funding for public transportation would allow municipalities to draft transit plans knowing the amount of money that will be available to them in advance—money that won’t disappear with a change of government, or when a federal program runs out.
In addition to the FCM, the Canadian Urban Transit Association has called for a national transit strategy—something that the NDP’s Olivia Chow had put forward in the form of Bill C-615, which had its first reading on February 3, 2011. The bill (aptly named an Act to Establish a National Transit Strategy) called for all levels of government to work together to establish and maintain permanent federal funding mechanisms for public transportation.
Sadly, as we’ve already noted, a full slate of urban issues, including transit, is not getting very much airtime in this federal election.

It would be a mistake to only speak of public transportation in terms of the economy and productivity, as transportation also bears on social justice and environmental issues. We can see this with the cancellation of the Finch West LRT, a line that would have served and helped ease commute times in a lower-income area of the city. (The new plan is for enhanced bus service on the route—however, without a dedicated bus lane, one wonders how enhanced this bus service can be).
On the environmental side, there are the greenhouse gas–reduction benefits of enticing drivers out of their cars and onto public transportation. Then there is transit’s connections to high-density, mixed-use development—something that Metrolinx is hoping to achieve with their 51 mobility hubs in their regional transportation plan, The Big Move.
All of this boils down to the fact that public transportation is a crucial link between many different elements of our city, be they environmental, economic, or social. Given the financial strain of cities and the large expenditures and operating costs of public transit systems, we need to examine the role of the federal government in funding transportation infrastructure.
The 2006 Conservative government budget did provide funding for public transportation in Canadian cities through the Public Transit Capital Trust, but that funding expired in 2010. Also, through the Gas Tax Fund, introduced in 2005 by the Paul Martin Liberals, a portion of the federal gas tax was dedicated to cities. This gave them an increasing share of the federal gas tax, with cities now getting five cents of the 10 cent per litre federal tax. This fund is used for municipal infrastructure projects, with many municipalities spending theirs on public transportation. Most parties have recognized the importance of the Gas Tax Fund, with the NDP proposing to raise it to six cents. However, as a Globe and Mail editorial noted, giving the entire federal portion of the gas tax to municipalities would raise another much-needed $2 billion in revenue per year.
This would hardly be a barrier-breaking initiative, as other jurisdictions certainly allow for public transportation through taxing mechanisms. In Los Angeles county, for instance, two thirds of voters approved Measure R in November 2008—a proposal to raise the county sales tax by a half cent for the next 30 years in order to fund public transportation. This allows the county a stable and reliable funding source—expected to generate $40 billion over the course of the tax—on the basis of which they can plan their regional transportation system.
The City of Toronto wouldn’t be able to propose a similar measure under current legislation as Canadian municipalities don’t have the legal authority to obtain a portion of sales taxes, let alone raise them. Which is why we need other levels of government to step in.
So, given all of this, what have the parties said about public transportation in this election?
As mentioned, the NDP is calling for an additional cent of the gas tax to be dedicated to cities, which could be used for public transportation. However, they are also calling for a National Public Transit Strategy, and, given that Olivia Chow had proposed a bill establishing this before parliament was dissolved, we can assume they are taking this seriously.
Aside from the NDP, the Green Party also directly addresses the issue in their election platform by calling for a doubling of current funding to stimulate re-investment in public transportation infrastructure, and redirecting federal infrastructure funding toward light-rail projects as opposed to highways and roads. They also plan to commit money towards pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure.
The Liberal platform says they “will bring clarity and coherence to the federal role in infrastructure” and put in place a Canadian Transportation and Infrastructure Strategy that will define the “next-generation of programming”; however, they don’t lay out what funding this might entail except for saying it would support rapid-transit, commuter, and high-speed rail.
The Conservatives hardly spend a paragraph on public transportation, repeating only that they will make the Gas Tax Fund permanent.
Without stable funding and strong leadership in our federal government, public transportation, road congestion, and commute times are only going to become bigger issues in the years ahead. We can only hope that the lack of attention they have received in this federal election so far is not an indication of how much attention they will receive in our next government, whoever may form it.
For more on the federal election, check out our politics hub, with a complete guide to every riding in Toronto.