A Miracle Elixir for Toronto?
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A Miracle Elixir for Toronto?

Toronto's chief planner unveils "Feeling Congested?", a public consultation on long-term transit goals.


Remember last year, when it seemed like city council was doing nothing but having one revolutionary transit debate after another, after another? One upshot of those many discussions: an agreement to hold wide-ranging public consultations about Toronto’s long-term transit goals.

Yesterday, Toronto’s chief planner, Jennifer Keesmaat, unveiled her plan for that consultation process (technically, it is part of the five-year review of the City’s Official Plan) under the banner “Feeling Congested?

Keesmaat’s intent is fivefold:

  • Review and refine existing policies.
  • Improve direction in the Official Plan (which lays out Toronto’s broad plan for managing growth) as to how decisions, especially on transit infrastructure, are made.
  • Establish transportation priorities.
  • Give feedback to Metrolinx on funding tools.
  • Improve clarity for partners on the direction of infrastructure investments.

Keesmaat appears to hope that the City and its council will figure out what it wants to do, and include that vision in the Official Plan (which currently has many maps, but few directions on matters such as technology choices or the prioritization of project corridors). This, in theory, would be instead of ad hoc announcements from the TTC or individual councillors.

The goals are laudable, but can run aground on several points.

Potential Trouble Spots

What forms of transit?
Any technology choice will influence the selection and priority of routes, and too much planning now could pre-empt valuable discussion of future options. In some places subways are the better choice, but a “subways subways subways” policy will lead to a much different (and smaller) network than Toronto would see with light rail (LRT) or bus rapid transit (BRT). Everyone wants rapid transit on their street, but this simply won’t happen. The Official Plan should seek to improve transit throughout the city, not just in a handful of corridors.

Who pays for what?
Much of the transit capital funding will come from the Ontario government, either from general revenue or from a mixture of new revenue tools such as tolls, sales tax, and parking levies. What happens when provincial political and spending priorities don’t align with those of city council and the Official Plan? Metrolinx takes command of projects as it sees fit whether they are truly regional or merely local projects with a lot of provincial funding.

What do we build when?
“Setting priorities” sounds good in theory, but nobody wants their scheme to be much below number two on the list. Drawing a map covered with new transit lines avoids the hard work of planning and deciding what should be built in what order. It keeps voters happy only until they learn that they must wait decades for a new service to show up at their front doors.

Metrolinx vs. Toronto
Metrolinx can definitely use feedback on which revenue tools might be acceptable within Toronto, but this misses a basic point: Metrolinx is a regional agency with many 905-based projects, and they are holding just two of their consultation meetings within the City of Toronto (at the North York Central Library on February 5, and at Metro Hall on February 9) to discuss their plans. Meanwhile, Toronto’s TTC is starved for both capital and operating funds. A debate about funding, especially one run by the City of Toronto, should concentrate on local needs first.

Toronto is clear on its desire for future investments, but changes its mind on what they should be every few years. Ontario needs to know what Toronto’s funding needs are, and the development industry needs to know where and what kinds of building the City plans to encourage and allow. Torontonians need to know that transit will expand and improve beyond endless debate and deferral.

The Consultation Schedule

Much of the planning department’s consultation to date has been with “stakeholder groups” such as the Board of Trade and Civic Action, not to mention Metrolinx, but less so with the general public. The City will conduct meetings in four parts of Toronto in the coming weeks, which Keesmaat hopes will spur greater participation. The meeting schedule:

Monday, February 4

York Civic Centre (Eglinton and Keele)

4–6:30 p.m. and 6:30–9 p.m.

Wednesday, February 6

Scarborough Civic Centre (Ellesmere and McCowan)

4–6:30 p.m. and 6:30–9 p.m.

Monday, February 11

North York Civic Centre (Yonge north of Sheppard)

4–6:30 p.m. and 6:30–9 p.m.

Wednesday, February 13

Toronto City Hall (Queen and Bay)

4–6:30 p.m. and 6:30–9 p.m.

There will be outreach via social media (on Facebook and Twitter), and discussion kits will be available for community groups and councillors. An “expert” panel will also consider what transit planning and networks look like in other cities in a discussion taking place on March 4, at the St. Lawrence Centre.

The Consultation Questions

This consultation will seek feedback in two major areas.

First is a question about the primary principles a transportation plan should have: what should it do for people, for places, and prosperity?

From Keesmaat's presentation, these are the kinds of transit principles members of the public will be asked about.

From Keesmaat’s presentation, these are the planning principles members of the public will be asked about.

This makes a nice slogan, but the real problem is that most of these principles are intertwined. “Affordability” is not just a question of whether a particular transit line costs too much to build, for instance, but whether a rider can afford to use the transit network. This is only one example of how the discussion is slanted toward capital spending while ignoring the problems of funding, service quality, and fare structure.

(Oddly enough “transit” is used on this page of the presentation but Keesmaat changed this to “transportation” in her verbal remarks. Councillor Shelley Carroll asked whether this was in response to political pressure. Keesmaat diplomatically replied that this is a review of transportation policies with an emphasis on transit.)

Second up in the public consultation is a question about revenue tools. Although the City will ask what the “top five” tools should be for new funding, there was no indication of how much each one might raise in Keesmaat’s presentation. This material is freely available from previous reports, and should be included in the materials made available during the consultations, so that the public can make informed decisions.

The second major question for the public: how to pay for transit?

The second major question for the public: how to pay for transit?

The revenue question is oddly stated in terms of Metrolinx’s goal of raising $2 billion annually. That number is out of date thanks to inflation and the fact that Metrolinx now recognizes a need to provide additional funding for local transit systems. Moreover, whatever the amount, it will come from the entire GTA for Metrolinx projects, but Toronto has its own additional requirements such as transit to the waterfront.

The (Problematic) Sales Pitch

In her remarks Keesmaat explained that there would be a marketing campaign wrapped around this consultation progress, which she said was required in order to reach people across the city from various backgrounds and not just “the usual suspects.” The theme of that marketing: “We get it. Congestion is at the core of most of the traffic frustrations you face.”

Unfortunately, “congestion” is a motorist’s term, and it entirely ignores the question of how long-suffering transit riders stuffed onto crowded buses, streetcars, and trains might also benefit from the new Official Plan, with its new transit goals. None of the discussion principles addresses transit congestion—that is, congestion on the transit system itself—and yet many participants will want to talk about their recent experiences waiting for service they could not board.

Combining revenue and planning discussions in one consultation will also be challenging. If someone proposes spending $2 billion a year, the first question will be “for what?” shortly followed by “what’s in it for me?” Metrolinx faces the same problem at a regional level, but at least has a map and a preliminary set of priority projects. What nobody has is a track record of delivering big improvements people can see.

The Complete Plan

The above consultation meetings cover the first of a planned three-phase process. The complete review plan:

  • January to March: Work will concentrate on overarching principles and revenue tools.
  • April to June: Looking at priority projects and refinements in other transportation policies so that they support the new Official Plan.
  • July to November: The focus will be on linking revenue and project priorities. By this time, Metrolinx should have released its own revenue proposals, and Toronto should have a better sense of what funding might be available and where provincial interests lie.

The plan is to hold public consultations during each of these three phases.

Toronto may feel congested now, but things will definitely get worse before they get better. There is no magic formula, no elixir that will solve all our problems with one swig. This is the real problem for transit advocates. Voters have swallowed that potion before, but their aches and pains are worse now thanks to indecision and inaction at both City Hall and Queen’s Park.

Better transportation, whatever that may mean, is years away and there are hard funding decisions with little to show for what could be accomplished.

See also: Jennifer Keesmaat’s complete presentation about the consultation, which outlines its goals and explains the framework for discussion [PDF].

CORRECTION: 12:49 PM Metrolinx is holding two consultations in Toronto, not one as we originally wrote. We’ve updated the information included above.