Ontario parties' transit plans reveal politics and paralysis

Transit plans, as one expert says, outlast election cycles and even governments. And therein lies the biggest challenge facing any party in the Ontario election when it comes to transit: For anything they promise now, they most likely won't be around for the ribbon cutting.
A look at the parties plans for breaking gridlock. 2:27

Toronto is building more transit than any other city in North America.

That's the optimistic tone with which Ed Levy starts off a conversation about transit in the Ontario election. The optimist would say it's something the city should take pride in, while the pessimist would say there's so much construction because there's so much catching up to do.

When it comes to transit and politics, Levy has written the book on the history of transit planning and failures.

The subtitle of his book Rapid Transit in Toronto sums up the historical challenge of building transit here: A History of Plans, Progress, Politics & Paralysis.

Transit plans, he says, outlast election cycles, outlast governments. And therein lies the biggest challenge facing any party: For anything it promises now, it most likely won't be around for the ribbon-cutting.

So using the subtitle of Levy's book, here's a look at what the parties are offering to get the province moving:

The Plans

The Liberals are proposing $29 billion over 10 years, with $15 billion earmarked for projects in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton areas.
Ontario PC leader Tim Hudak say he would cancel planned light rail projects and divert the money into expanding service on GO Transit's rail network if elected premier. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

Much of it continues what Metrolinx proposed in the Big Move plan and was announced in the failed provincial budget.

Like the PCs, the Liberals want to see all-day, two-way GO Train service. That would include a 15-minute regional express service.

The battlegrounds of Kitchener-Waterloo and Guelph get the promise of expanded GO service within five years, while the vote-rich 905 region surrounding Toronto gets Bus Rapid Transit and LRT as well.

While the Liberal plan offers the most detail, some voters may feel, with a decade head start, that they've had their chance.

The NDP platform says it will take the Liberal investment and add an extra $1 billion in the first four years to kick-start priority projects. Those priority projects include a Downtown Relief Line for Toronto, electrifying the Union Pearson Express rail link, all-day, two-way GO Trains to Kitchener-Waterloo, and year-round GO Trains to St. Catharines and Niagara Falls.

But considering Andrea Horwath triggered the election, she had little in the way of new transit ideas to offer, with most already taken by the Liberals.

The PC plan takes a different path. It's spread over 25 years with up to $2 billion dedicated each year. All-day, two-way GO service is there. LRTs are out, subway expansion in Toronto is in, focusing on an east-west express line as well as expanding subways north in to York Region and Scarborough.

The PC plan is unique in it calls for an overhaul in how transit is managed, calling for a merger of GO Transit, LRTs, subways and major highways into one transportation entity.

It's a departure from what Metrolinx has in mind, and with some key elements missing or removed, some experts are warning it could be a disaster (more on that later).

The Progress

Ed Levy says the Liberals and NDP would continue plans already in the pipeline, maintaining the kind of political stability needed to get major projects built.

Tim Hudak has said he would stop plans for electrification of the GO system and use the money to expand service — but, Levy says, that hamstrings a key element to solving congestion woes.

Levy says electrification is the only way GO Trains can stop and start more quickly, achieve higher speeds and run closer together and stop in more places — all important if the GO tracks will be relied upon to take the load off the TTC.

The Politics

The eternal question is how to pay for the promises. The Liberals say the majority of the funding will come from dedicated gas tax and HST on the gas tax. But Levy takes them to task for ignoring some of the recommendations in the transit panel headed by Anne Golden, which the Liberals themselves commissioned. Politically unpalatable options like tolls are nowhere to be found.
The transit plan envisaged by Ontario Liberal Leader Kathleen Wynne, right, and her recent minister of infrastructure, Glen Murray, would spend billions on LRTs and expansion of GO trains, paid for, they say, with gas tax and HST revenues. (Darren Calabrese/Canadian Press)

The NDP has said it will follow the Liberals' fiscal framework, while getting extra money from budget savings. Where those savings would come from is vague at best. Eric Miller, a transit expert at the University of Toronto, says the NDP doesn't have the intestinal fortitude to talk about revenue tools, especially when running a campaign focused on voters' pocketbooks.

The Progressive Conservatives say clearly: no new taxes. Instead, the funding will come from prioritizing money in the capital budget. What projects would suffer, they don't say. They do say some money will come from new revenue as a result of balancing the budget early, and selling provincial land and buildings.

Levy says the funding section of each platform sacrifices political courage for pragmatism — though he also points out that once a party is elected, who knows if they'll change their minds.

The Paralysis

Miller calls Hudak's plan to eliminate LRT lines in Toronto, Mississauga, Brampton and Hamilton a disaster. He says it would be devastating to transit planning in the region. Removing LRTs would leave many areas vastly underserved and remove key parts of the larger network.

Miller wonders how the PCs can talk about fiscal responsibility while touting subways that are more expensive to build and, a point often overlooked, to operate.

He says some forms of transit have become too politicized. Miller says subways have become somehow synonymous with better transit, even when population growth and density dictate LRT as the better option.

Each plan is a reflection of its respective party's overall campaign:

  • The Liberals are promising a stay-the-course road to transit expansion, banking on what's already in the pipe as a sign of things to come.
  • The NDP, outmanoeuvred on many left-wing issues in the budget, has struggled to find ideas that set it apart from the Liberals.
  • The PCs, finally, are staking out a different path. Like their million jobs plan that includes 100,000 job cuts, their transit plan is built on removing a core part of the GTA's transit plans.

Levy says, looking back at history, the way to get transit done is over the long term. Turmoil and rapid changes in governments don't help. He points to the Conservative dynasty at Queen's Park from the 1940s to the 1980s as a time when transit was built and funded properly.

A golden age of transit expansion and funding he says we're likely never to see again.

About the Author

Steven D'Souza

CBC News New York

Steven D'Souza is a Gemini-nominated journalist based in New York City. He has reported internationally from the papal conclave in Rome and the World Cup in Brazil, and he spent eight years in Toronto covering stories like the G20 protests and the Rob Ford crack video scandal.


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