Toronto’s Transit Planning Problem Isn’t Politics, It’s Governance
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Toronto’s Transit Planning Problem Isn’t Politics, It’s Governance

This City does it different than virtually every other jurisdiction in North America.

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Photo by Ben Roffelsen Photography via Torontoist’s Flickr Pool.

Calls to “de-politicize” transit planning have become common within Toronto’s editorial circles. The theory goes that if we remove the shenanigans of transit-ignorant politicians, then Toronto’s transit woes will be cured.

As just one example, a recent Torontoist piece calling for the de-politicization of transit planning invoked Vancouver and London as examples for Toronto to emulate, but then overlooked that these cities actually have far more formal involvement from politicians in the transit planning process.

Rather than blaming “politics,” we should turn to the structure through which politics and planning interact in our fair city. In contrast to virtually every other jurisdiction in North America, transit planning in Toronto is remarkably fractured, unresponsive, and undemocratic. Most importantly, the process lacks a defined legislative framework. There are no plans that include all levels of government or take local and regional transport into account. At the provincial level, it’s unclear how Metrolinx and provincial politicians interact. In the City of Toronto proper, transit planning is a confused affair with the City and Metrolinx awkwardly sharing jurisdiction.

The three phases of light rail along Eglinton are a telling demonstration of muddled responsibilities. The Eglinton Crosstown is being planned and paid for by Metrolinx, but the Eglinton West LRT is being planned by Metrolinx and will be paid for by Toronto as part of SmartTrack. Meanwhile, the Eglinton East LRT is being planned by the City, and due to the vociferous appetite of the Scarborough subway extension, it is presently unclear who will pay for it.

Toronto presently possesses neither a long-term strategic infrastructure plan, nor a short-term ridership growth plan. At the municipal scale, City Planning is currently working on a variety of projects unconnected by a grander vision. Even if the City did reintroduce a Ridership Growth Plan, it is unclear if there would be any funds available to pay for it.

Meanwhile, Metrolinx’s The Big Move is a grand plan for regional transportation that is almost entirely focused on large-scale capital projects. After nearly two decades of sustained disinvestment, new infrastructure is sorely needed. But so are improvements to badly strained local transit systems that, in the cases of Toronto and Hamilton, continue to operate below service levels of the late 1980s.

When compared to other North American urban regional transit planning agencies, Metrolinx stands out because it’s both a planning body and an operator of some—but not all—transit in the region. Metrolinx has shown favouritism for regional and prestige projects at the expense of local transit, even when the latter may move far more passengers. Nowhere is this more evident than the Union-Pearson Express, which in 2016 received a per ride provincial operating subsidy some 260 times higher than what the province allots to the average TTC ride through the gas tax.

By contrast, Metro Vancouver’s TransLink adopts a holistic approach to regional mobility and is responsible for local and regional transit, active transportation, some bridges, and goods movement. In 2016, TransLink introduced a $23-billion strategic plan, split between $5 billion for service improvements and maintenance and $18 billion for new infrastructure. Compared to The Big Move, Vancouver is spending nearly 35 per cent more per capita on transit to 2041, despite having built far more transit in the past 30 years than we have in Toronto.

In an American context, all urban regions with over 50,000 residents must form federally-funded Metropolitan Planning Organizations that produce transportation master plans though a “continuing, comprehensive and collaborative” process (known as the three Cs of planning) in conjunction with municipalities and regional and local transit agencies. The structure and responsibilities of MPOs varies across the U.S., with some including land use planning, but all MPOs are required to devise short-term (three to five years) and long-term (20+ years) transportation plans, and the transit agencies in the region must do the same. Transit projects must be planned within a realistic financial framework and undergo cost-benefit analysis that considers alternatives.

The governance structures of TransLink and MPOs are significantly more democratic than Metrolinx. TransLink is presently chaired by the mayor of Vancouver, and its board is appointed by a council representing every mayor in the region. Seattle’s MPO governance structure consists of six boards, including a general assembly made up of every elected official in the region. Its 2040 master plan was drafted by two committees, one made up largely of elected officials and representatives of transit agencies, and other of business and community groups.

In 2009, concurrent with the merger of GO Transit and Metrolinx, Dalton McGuinty’s government replaced Metrolinx’s board of 11 elected officials and two provincial appointees with an entirely appointed board. Without any specific evidence, this shift was justified as a means of removing parochial political interference with transit planning. A corporate-style board was intended to spur transit construction, yet just a year later, McGuinty dealt the initial death blow to Transit City by indefinitely postponing $4 billion of transit funding, which unquestionably did more harm to transit than Adam Giambrone serving on the Metrolinx board.

Paul Bedford, Toronto’s former chief planner and a former Metrolinx director, was removed from Metrolinx’s board in 2012 after six years of service, ending the presence of a board member with a formal background in planning. Only one of 13 current members has any transit experience. There is no requirement for the Metrolinx board to meet in public, nor to receive public deputations. The substantial bulk of its members are drawn from the corporate sector, with a single academic, and two members with public sector backgrounds.

While improved governance for transit planning in the GTHA would not necessarily guarantee better results, a more responsive and democratic governance structure that is representative of the tremendous diversity of the GTA would be a step in the right direction. Legislation clearly establishing a process for planning new transit projects with defined cost-benefit criteria and consideration of alternatives should be implemented.

Transit agencies in the GTHA should also be required to produce short and long-term plans that feed into a regional transportation strategy, emulating MPOs’ three C’s of planning (comprehensive, co-operative, continuing). Finally, the current structure of Metrolinx is heavily tilted towards regional transit often to the detriment of local transit. Local and regional transit must be treated on an equal footing, and improved simultaneously.

All urban regions have politicians involved in transit planning, so the task isn’t to remove them, but rather to devise a governance and legislative structure that guides planning in a predictable, transparent, and rules-based manner that is responsive to the present and future needs of transit users.

Alex Gatien is a Masters of Environmental Studies candidate at York University in the Planning Program.