GTA transit expansion: the planning, the paying

Region seeks input about the transit residents want, and at what price
Combined with townhall-style meetings, the Feeling Congested? consultation is aimed a sparking discussion about transit expansion in the Greater Toronto Area and how to pay for it. (Raja Moussaoui/CBC News)

The Greater Toronto Area's transportation problems are apparent to anyone who's had to drive up the Don Valley Parkway on a Friday afternoon or squeeze into a TTC subway train at rush hour.

No less than three public consultations are underway looking into the future of transit expansion in the GTA and how we can pay for it (scroll to the bottom of this page for an explanation of how these three consultations differ). 

The city-led consultation — which goes by the name Feeling Congested? — held its fourth public event at city hall on Wednesday.

Toronto’s chief planner, Jennifer Keesmaat, addressed approximately 100 people who came to the event. 

"I believe there are certain conversations we need to have as a city," she said. "Transportation planning is fundamental to having a great city ... and transportation planning needs funding."

The crowd formed more than a dozen work groups in the main lobby of city hall to discuss and debate transit issues for two hours.

The questions came in two parts:

  1. A discussion about how the city should prioritize new transit plans.
  2. A debate over how to generate money to pay for the regional transportation budget put forward by Metrolinx, the provincial body that oversees transit planning for the Greater Toronto and Hamilton area.

Each work group presented their results and opinions to the crowd, which were then recorded by the event’s facilitator, Nicole Swerhun, on a laptop that projected the results back to the room.


"The city has a set of transportation policies, but we have not identified a set of priority projects, and nor have we provided Metrolinx staff with our desired revenue tools," said Swerhun.

Metrolinx has a deadline to present an investment strategy report for the Greater Toronto and Hamilton area to the province by June 1. Spokesperson Vanessa Thomas said the agency will be working closely with city of Toronto staff to feed the information they gather from the Feeling Congested? campaign into the Metrolinx report.

One participant, Scott Randall, said he's frustrated by his daily commute and came to the meeting to have his say about the future of transit in Toronto.

"Sometimes you feel like a second-class citizen if you don’t have a car in Toronto," he said. "I live at Main and Danforth but work at Don Mills and Eglinton, which by car would be only 15 to 20 minutes. By bus and subway it works out to 40 to 45 minutes. Most of the time you’re packed in like a sardine."

Another work group participant, Jonathan Laski, said he's happy to be part of the consultation process.

"It seems people are finally ready to have an honest conversation that includes how we pay for things," he said.

In addition to the meetings, Feeling Congested? is relying on social media to spread their campaign, which includes a Facebook page, a Twitter account and a website that has an interactive survey on transit funding options. In less than two weeks, almost 7,000 people have visited site. About 4,000 people have completed the online survey.

"I think it’s a strong campaign, and there’s plenty of opportunity for the public to give feedback through the online forum," said Ryan Anders Whitney, who works for the Toronto Centre for Active Transportation.

The online survey allows citizens to consider a handful of potential revenue tools including:

  • Increases in fuel taxes.
  • Increases in personal income taxes.
  • A vehicle registration tax.
  • Highway tolls.
  • Utility bill levies.

One or a mix of the options will have to create $2 billion year to support the Metrolinx plan.

The results of data collected from the website will be combined with the opinions expressed at the public meetings to generate a report that influences the second stage of the consultation.

Swerhun believes the upcoming second and third phases of Feeling Congested? will increase the public’s willingness to engage.

In the second phase, planned to run from April to June, the public will be asked to choose their preferred projects. In the third and final phase, running from July to November, those priorities will be matched with the revenue sources identified in the first phase.

"That online tool is going to continue to change. In each phase we’ll present new information and we’ll take new feedback," said Swerhun. "You actually end up with a transportation strategy, an investment strategy, and that’s the big thing the city hasn’t had so far."

The Metrolinx consultations, CivicAction’s campaign, and Feeling Congested? are all focused on stressing the need to raise about $2 billion a year to modernize and expand a regional and local transit system many experts concede has been underfunded for the last 30 years. Many predict the region’s congestion will get worse and be harder to fix if action is not taken soon, given the region's population growth.  

"There are a lot of different campaigns, but the power of the campaign won’t show up until we get something built. I have no respect for anything until it gets done," said Bruce Ward, a designer with Architecture for Humanity Toronto, who took part in the Feeling Congested? workshops.

Ken Greenberg, an urban design expert who sits on the CivicAction steering committee, said the consultations are key to bringing the public into the transit funding discussion.

"You might say it’s a good thing that we have three consultations, that everything is converging, but you might say that it illustrates the somewhat disjointedness of things," he said.

"The consciousness–raising that the campaigns are doing, in their different ways, is all getting at the same issue and leading us to the point where the elected officials will have to catch up to the public. The campaigns are positive because they are sensitizing the public to the need to come to a solution."

"Beyond that, I think it’s going to take a very serious conversation among people we elect with expertise, and senior staff people."

3 separate consultations

Three different consultation campaigns are underway, each working in its own way to gain public approval for the funding of new transport and infrastructure projects in Toronto and its suburbs.

Here's a primer:

Feeling Congested?

Championed by chief city planner Jennifer Keesmaat, this discussion is asking residents to share ideas about new "decision-making criteria" to guide the city’s future transport investments, and look at ways to pay for them.

The Feeling Congested? campaign stresses the need for revenue tools to build and maintain transportation infrastructure that can meet the demands of drivers, transit users, cyclists and pedestrians in a region that will absorb three million new people in the next two decades. The consultation will also inform changes to the city’s official plan.

The first phase of the campaign included a series of town-hall consultation meetings and an online interactive survey and discussion guides that are available until March 15.

This local consultation campaign will be used to make recommendations for the wider regional transit plan spearheaded by Metrolinx called The Big Move.

Metrolinx and The Big Move

Metrolinx is the provincial government agency set up to coordinate transportation in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area. In mid-January, Metrolinx launched 12 public roundtable discussions across the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Region, which wrap up Tuesday. The public consultations will address funding for the "next wave" of transportation projects contained in the The Big Move.

The Big Move is Metrolinx’s plan to improve transportation, relieve traffic congestion and reduce the burden on overused transit lines across the GTHA. Based on 2008 estimates, the Big Move carries a price tag of $50 billion over the next 20 to 25 years. That number is sure to rise as transit plans get flushed out over the next two decades.

To date, $16 billion has been committed to The Big Move, which is now funding a number of projects that all have a completion date of 2031 or earlier.

These include:

Another $34 billion is needed to fund the next wave of projects in the Big Move.

These include:

What would you do with 32?

Starting last October, CivicAction, an independent non-profit organization, launched an initiative that promotes The Big Move and also addresses the need for its funding.

In the first phase of this campaign, organizers asked residents: "What would you do with 32?" This question refers to the average 32 minutes they would save in their daily commute if the Big Move plan is fully implemented over the next two decades.   

In early March, CivicAction will launch the second part of its campaign that asks the question: "What would you do for 32?"

CivicAction CEO Mitzie Hunter said the second question pulls into focus the issue about how these transit projects will be funded.

"This phase of the campaign will try to get people to connect with the fact that in order to receive the benefits that you identified, that there is a need to pay," she said. "Perhaps people will tell us under what conditions will they pay? What are some of the principles or guidelines that they want to see in place in order to pay more for transportation investment?"