Toronto Region Board of Trade Calls for a Better Way on Transit
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Toronto Region Board of Trade Calls for a Better Way on Transit

Trade group's new discussion paper urges a more reasonable, de-politicized approach to transit planning.

Photo by Loozrboy, from the Torontoist Flickr pool.

There’s a maxim in urban planning that all planning is political, and Toronto’s ever-changing transit proposals certainly bear it out. But with the release of a new discussion paper, the Toronto Region Board of Trade is calling on the City’s transit stakeholders to de-politicize the often rancorous transit planning process.

With seven weeks to go in the mayoral election campaign, the report comes at a time when politicized transit proposals are both popular and plentiful, and candidates are liberally drawing colourful lines on maps.

The Board of Trade, which is also running a campaign urging voters to “think twice, vote once,” argues that the City needs to step back from the way it’s made transit decisions in the past and pursue a more responsible governance model.

“The status quo is not working,” the organization stated in a news release. “The time to act is now.”

The Board of Trade—which represents 12,000 members—has presented a number of ideas to improve governance and outcomes.

Some, such as a call for significant, sustainable, and dedicated transit revenue tools, have been made before without success.

Other proposals, such as adopting a new special-purpose transit body, have been mentioned in the past—although never in the detail provided in the Board of Trade report. It cites, among other examples, Transport for London’s “municipal special purpose body,” the Portland Tri-Met’s “provincial agency model,” and the “transit alliance” model seen in continental European cities. The models vary, but the aims are consistent: transit decisions should be made by experts according to available evidence, and respond to and represent the needs of the region in a transparent way.

These goals have not been met in Toronto, and during a press conference yesterday, Board of Trade president and CEO Carol Wilding betrayed some frustration with the lack of progress on the file.

“We can’t let comprehensive transit planning be battered by shifting political agendas. Countless transportation plans are debated, altered, delayed, or cancelled. This constant change brings frustrated skepticism to the business and public. Somebody has to be in charge.”

Metrolinx was created by the provincial government in 2006 to be an authoritative, expert transit agency removed from the political process. The effort, though, has produced mixed results. When the agency delivered its long-awaited recommendations on sustainable transit revenue tools in 2013, for instance, city council and the province chose to ignore them for fear the ideas wouldn’t be politically palatable. Metrolinx has also complied with multiple requests for changes from the province and City Hall—it may be an independent provincial agency, but it’s also one that responds to political realities.

In calling for better and more informed decision-making, Wilding made specific reference to the process that produced the Scarborough subway proposal. In this case, politicians led the planning process and tripped over themselves to be seen as “subway champions”—the result of a political discourse that has deprioritized nuanced planning discussions in favour of technology fetishes and regional grievances.

“Politics intervened, and governance failed to withstand the pressure to stick with a tough decision,” Wilding said.

“No cost-benefit analysis was evident when the plan was changed to build subways rather than LRT, and it has been hugely expensive.”

The difficulty with calling on a separate independent body to oversee transit in the region is that it will still require political oversight given its spending of tax dollars. And politicians are unlikely to pass up the opportunity to put their own personal stamp on transit plans or to pontificate about the fact that their ward or riding requires a form of transit investment that no transit expert agrees with.

Asked whether she had faith that Toronto could overcome its track record on transit and find a system that works, Wilding said she did.

“I’m an optimist.”