What the agency does, who runs it, and what it means for transit in Toronto.
Transit often seems to be the all-consuming issue in Toronto. It’s impossible to live here without griping about the lines we haven’t built, our inability to pay for new transit, and how annoying it is to wait forever for a streetcar and then have three show up at the same time. But wait! We have Metrolinx, don’t we? It’s the provincial agency that oversees transit and transportation in the region, but most of us have no idea what it actually does. Here, then, is our primer on one of the most important pieces of the transportation pie:
What is Metrolinx’s job?
The 2006 Metrolinx Act defines the Crown agency’s role thusly:
“To provide leadership in the co-ordination, planning, financing, development and implementation of an integrated, multi-modal transportation network that … supports a high quality of life, a sustainable environment and a strong, prosperous and competitive economy.”
Among other things, Metrolinx is in charge of high-profile projects such as the Union-Pearson Express train and the entirety of the GO transit system. It’s also responsible for everything from the Presto card to bike infrastructure to some of the planning of “mobility hubs” around transit stations.
So, we’ve only had regional transit planning since 2006?
Yes and no. If you like, you can grab your favourite strong liquor and read Ed Levy’s summary of all the transit plans proposed and ditched in these parts over the past century or so.
Historically, Metropolitan Toronto actually did a pretty good job of aligning planning and transit, at least until growth began exploding outside its borders in the 1970s.
It’s kind of ironic that what got the ball rolling again was the Mike Harris government—the same people who buried an NDP-commissioned report on regional governance, killed major transit projects, and forced through the amalgamation of Toronto. Realizing that something remotely resembling the regional thinking Metro once provided was necessary, they created the Greater Toronto Services Board in 1999. It met a few times but was, by design, largely ineffectual, and it disbanded in 2001.
The McGuinty Liberals tried again, creating the Greater Toronto Transportation Authority in 2006. After passing Places to Grow, its region-wide plan for curbing sprawl, the province needed to back that up with some infrastructure, so it introduced the Metrolinx Act, which gave the agency a snazzier name (and one less likely to be confused with the Greater Toronto Airports Authority).
The agency’s first job was to come up with a transportation plan for the entire GTA—and a plan to fund it. The Big Move plan came out in 2008 and included lists of projects Metrolinx wanted built by 2023 and 2033. The entirety of the plan was estimated to cost $50 billion, or $2 billion per year over its lifespan.
Okay, so who exactly is running this thing? People I’ve heard of, right?
Probably not. Metrolinx’s first CEO was former Burlington mayor Rob MacIsaac, but now longtime public servant Bruce McCuaig holds the post. The original board was made up of local politicians, so you’d doubtless recognize some familiar faces.
Since everyone was being a bit parochial and having trouble working together (at least in the way the government wanted them to), the board was dismissed in 2009. GO Transit merged with Metrolinx, and its board took over.
The current board is chaired by Rob Prichard, who has been president of the University of Toronto, director of Torstar, and has sat on the board or run pretty much every significant corporation in the city at some point. You probably won’t recognize most of the rest of the board, although if you follow the civic scene you may know the odd name, such as Rahul Bhardwaj (president and CEO of the Toronto Community Foundation) and Anne Golden, who wrote the governance report that, as we mentioned earlier, ended up being ditched by Mike Harris.
We’re living under Metrolinx 2.0 right now, but some argue we need something more publicly accountable and divorced from partisan politics—Metrolinx 3.0, in other words.
So, they’re the ones who decide what gets built and where? Then does Toronto tell them what to do?
Metrolinx is not a transit authority, like, say, the Metropolitan Transit Authority in New York or the Chicago Transit Authority, which actually have decision-making power. What Metrolinx does is listen to local councils, run things past their staff, and pass things up to the board. The board is appointed by, and makes its recommendations to, “the Lieutenant Governor in council,” which is a fancy legal way of saying the provincial cabinet. That’s where the decision-making power resides—effectively with the premier.
Okay. Then why can city council change its mind five times on the Scarborough subway and how come mayoral candidates are allowed to design their own transit systems?
It would give us all big headaches to go over what happened with that mess of a Scarborough debate again, but the important takeaway is this: even though the province has legislative power over municipalities, and even though Metrolinx’s entire purpose is to provide expert transit advice, politics still rules. Remember when everyone was making up their own Scarborough plan, including the transportation minister himself? Ah, good times.
Toronto council dismissed or ignored its own expert advice about Scarborough when it came to LRT vs. subway, and the province wasn’t going to overrule Toronto city council—so, with some caveats, they effectively went along. Metrolinx got a bit snippy about it in the end, and McCuaig understatedly said the process was “frustrating” (remember above, when it said they were supposed to provide “leadership” and “co-ordination”?), but for the most part, Metrolinx was left almost entirely out of the decision-making process, though it admitted it kinda sorta thought the LRT would be a wiser move, if anybody wanted to ask.
So, if you’re not entirely clear who’s running the show, it’s not your fault.
Everyone keeps talking about a Downtown Relief line. Is that a Toronto project as opposed to a Metrolinx project?
As we said, Metrolinx is basically taking all the local projects and then (in theory) prioritizing them in terms of regional importance. Initially, Toronto was concentrating on Transit City, and the DRL subway was back-burnered to Metrolinx’s 25-year plan. But then the province decided it wanted to extend the Yonge line north, up to Richmond Hill, and the TTC realized that, you know what?, the Yonge line was really busy and maybe we should do something about that first. So, it asked and Metrolinx agreed to move the DRL up into the 15-year plan.
(Fascinating trivia: Council approved the Yonge extension, subject to building the DRL first, in 2009. You never hear about it, but it’s the only actual, unbuilt council-approved subway project in Toronto now. Don’t tell anyone!)
Now all the mayoral candidates are talking a whole lot about whether they’ll build a DRL or a “SmartTrack,” and when, and, if you’re lucky, how they propose to pay for it—you’d never even know that all those people actually paid to think about this stuff at Metrolinx have been working on a strategy for relieving the Yonge line. Yes, actual experts and people from the community are looking at everything from the DRL subway to adding bus lanes as part of a holistic approach to the problem.
Anyway, that’s why all the candidates can draw maps with crayon and PowerPoint and spend months talking as if we haven’t had a regional transit plan in place for over five years and as if they’re doing all the grunt work here. Metrolinx is supposed to be where the big picture is getting taken care of, but what this all shows is that so far, no one’s found a good way to actually shoe-horn it into the process and let it take the proverbial wheel.
Dang. I was just in New York and their subway is awesome—world class, even! Why can’t we have subways like them?! Subways, subways, subways?
Well, first of all, New York is much older and denser, and there are all sorts of little reasons we don’t have their transit system. But, in the current context, what’s really relevant is how they pay for it and how it’s run. The TTC gets nearly all its money (about 75 per cent) from the farebox; it’s more beholden to fares than just about any transit system in the world. Before Mike Harris, the TTC got half its operating money from the province—now it gets zip. By contrast, only about half of New York’s money comes from the farebox, thanks in large part to federal and state money.
Oh, and New York uses those nasty revenue tools to pay for transit and other municipal needs. For example, it has a payroll tax so everyone who works in the city has their wages effectively garnished, even if they never go underground and take a helicopter to their Connecticut estates at the end of each day. The city also has hotel taxes and a citywide sales tax and … well, you get the idea. The short answer is that while we’re quibbling over a $60 vehicle registration tax, our tax-averse American friends are building transit and otherwise sustaining their cities thanks to “revenue tools.” Even the autotopia of Los Angeles approved a 30-year tax to pay for $40 billion of new transit. That’s right: we’re getting schooled by Los Angeles.
So we know what we want to build but have no clue how to pay for it?
Pretty much. Prior to The Big Move, the government earmarked roughly $11 billion to get started and implemented some “Quick Wins,” hoping everyone would be excited to see projects getting built and then be willing to talk about revenue tools a few years later. Some projects have been undertaken (such as York Region’s Viva Bus Rapid Transit System and the under-construction UP Express), but others have had money in the bank for seven years without shovels hitting ground due to, um, extenuating circumstances (*cough*TransitCity*cough*).
A draft of Metrolinx’s financing strategy came out in 2008, but the final report took another five years—and set off a mini political firestorm because, thanks to Rob Ford’s rhetoric, people now figure they can get transit for free. Its suggestions to raise $2 billion a year included adding 1 per cent to the HST, introducing a parking levy for businesses, a new 5-cent tax on gasoline, and a 15-per-cent increase in development charges.
Hoping to quiet that storm and get some political cover, Kathleen Wynne convened a Transit Investment Advisory Panel (headed by the ubiquitous Anne Golden!) to evaluate the suggestions Metrolinx had just spent five years working on. They made similar-but-slightly-different recommendations, including a 3-cent gas tax increase that would then increase annually up to 10 cents; a 0.5-per-cent increase in the corporate tax rate; a redeployment of the existing HST, which would funnel approximately $80 million per year to transit; as well as some other ideas, such as floating bonds. It didn’t quite add up to $2 billion, but it was seen as relatively palatable—at least with a provincial election looming.
Then, of course, we had a campaign, and Wynne backed down from the two sets of suggestions she’d asked for, saying there wouldn’t be any new taxes for now; she was willing to move some dollars in the Treasury around, but there would definitely be no gas tax or HST increase.
Now she has a majority, of course, so time will tell whether we’ll go back to the two sets of expert opinions on how to actually get this done. In the meantime, Metrolinx effectively has no money at all set aside for new capital projects now.
If Metrolinx eventually runs the show, is the TTC going to get uploaded to the province?
Metrolinx works with nine transit agencies across the region, but the TTC is the elephant in the room, carrying about 85 per cent of all riders—so you can understand that the arrangement could be a bit tricky. Metrolinx exists to make sure that people can travel, say, from Mississauga to Markham or Toronto without having to jump on five different systems, paying five different fares. Probably no one wants provincial bureaucrats figuring out details such as how often to run the 56 Leaside bus, but not very many people want see “border wars” or bureaucratic spats along the lines of the game of chicken the TTC and the province got into over the Presto card, either.
So, a full upload is probably not in the cards, but don’t be surprised if there ends up being some kind of rejigging and a look at best practices to ensure that we don’t have one city-wide system and several suburban systems, instead of a single network where each piece is actually working with the other pieces. That would be a nice change, wouldn’t it?
So, since we all think traffic is bad and we want to build transit and we have a transit plan, can we actually do that already?
Our humble suggestion is that it will take some political will and a reality check for GTA residents who seem to be entirely fed up with gridlock, but not enough to commit to fixing it. A majority government in Queen’s Park is a good start, but it doesn’t help when politics comes to the fore and say, a civic leader who once talked regularly about how you need to pay for transit suddenly starts implying that you don’t really have to.
If the province wants to build its already-behind-schedule $2-billion-a-year plan, it should find a group of revenue tools that spread the costs fairly and encourage people to use the transit they’re building (e.g. a property tax increase might make you grumble, but a gas tax will make you grumble and think about using your car less). Oh, it would also be nice if the federal government gave any money at all to the infrastructure that sustains Toronto and the other cities that drive its economy. Canada, FYI, is the only country in the G8 without federal transit funding. If there’s “only one taxpayer,” it’s fair for GTA residents to stand up for their share.
Finally, a restructured Metrolinx board with a mix of experts, citizens, and politicians would make it more accountable and something more akin to a regional government. And they’d need to have dedicated money flow directly to them—not through the Mayor of Toronto or the provincial cabinet—and make apolitical, fact-based decisions about our transit needs.
It sounds like a lot, but we’ve come a long way in the past decade, and we could actually avoid the mistakes of the past by making some changes and moving the agenda forward for real and for good.
This post originally stated that The McGuinty Liberals in 2006 created the Greater Toronto Transit Authority, when in fact it was the Greater Toronto Transportation Authority.