Toronto Transit City, OneCity and the Future – Part 1

By: Ian Clark

Before breaking for the summer, Toronto City Council decided to dive into arguing the merits of another transit “plan”. The recently revealed OneCity document, presented by City Councillors Karen Stintz and Glenn DeBaeremaeker, I am sure leaves Torontoians feeling both confused and disinterested.  People of Toronto are confused because of contradictions in our politically driven transit visions (Transit City; Subways, Subways, Subways!; The Big Move; etc…). The average commuter does not know which plan is THE plan – confused by the countless transit documents with colourful lines and some type of reference to the City or region’s future. Simultaneously, people sit in traffic or a crowded transit vehicle, unlikely to have seen any improvement in their commute in the previous decade, willfully disregarding the latest plan as mere chatter on a slow news day. People were right – the plan was mere chatter, as the OneCity plan was defeated in City Council in early July.

A plan for the future?

This is my first article on transit in Toronto, so before I go into my thoughts, frustrations, and ramblings on the subject of transit, I wanted first to provide some context. This two part series will lay the foundation for my (likely incoherent) thoughts going forward. And if you do read this and think it either interesting or rubbish then tell me, and check out articles by Ed Drass and Steve Munro – the true kings of thinking through transit issues in my beloved Toronto. I can only write and talk about transit because I read what they have to say first.

For those confused, OneCity (see above) was the latest transit plan heralded as the solution to the City’s transportation woes.  It follows a list of other transit plans illustrated by our esteemed politicos over the years.

Toronto’s recent history in transit planning commenced, ironically,  with the end of substantial transit funding in Ontario – brought to bear during the years of the Mike Harris Conservative’s Common Sense Revolution.  Obviously, transit planning could not be done by simply using “common sense” – so we decided not to do it anymore.  Subway tunnels were filled, Provincial transit subsidies were cut, transit services were reduced, and fares rose.  These policy decisions, combined with slower urban growth and cheap fuel costs, resulted in the decline of transit ridership throughout the 1990s.

The early 2000s brought the Ridership Growth Strategy, a policy document put together by the City’s transportation planning department and the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC).  The TTC was recovering from the decisions of the 1990s, and was seeking to do more than simply operate a transit relic. The strategy called for increasing transit service to reduce wait times, become more reliable, and ease transfers.  The strategy was slow to develop, but became essential reading during the Mayorship of David Miller.  Although it provided little in the way of sexy transit infrastructure projects (the plan understood that the TTC was broke and that there was no funding for transit expansion), the policy was essential in providing a level of service that would allow Torontoians to acknowledge that transit exists and may even be an option for some.

Through the 2000s, growing development pressure (Toronto is currently home to over 150 high rise construction sites, which is more than the next five North American Cities combined!), rising gas prices, a growing environmental consciousness and acceptance of global warming, and a renewed interest in urban living and working, politicians once again became interested in providing alternative transportation options to the automobile. The seat of political power is moving away from auto-centric suburbs (simply because people are flocking to urban areas), think-tanks and special interest groups are bemoaning congestion, and planning and policy wonks are lamenting auto-dependency. Essentially, Torontoians were (and still are) discovering that growth cannot be accommodated by widening roads and relying on cars to move around, and that by doing so jeopardizes the region’s economic and environmental sustainability.

Also during the 2000s, a more progressive political makeup pushed the Ridership Growth Strategy, reinvested municipal dollars heavily into transit (finally accommodating for the loss of Provincial funding in the 1990s), and established transit expansion as the priority for transportation funding dollars.  Subsequently, these forces combined to result in yearly increases in ridership, with more people riding the TTC in 2011 than ever before (over 500 million rides). David Miller capped off his transit expansion dreams with the 2007 Transit City Plan.  The planned called for the construction of tram or light-rail rights-of-way throughout the City, with a focus on routes with existing high ridership, routes traveling through low-income priority areas, and the City’s suburbs.  The plan came without funding solutions to pay for these transit expansion projects, but was thrown a lifeline with the Province’s Big Move Regional Transportation Plan that included most Transit City routes and brought Provincial funding dollars to the table.

While Toronto established the Transit City Plan, the Province simultaneously created Metrolinx (the regional transportation body overseeing transportation issues in the Greater Toronto Area) and developed The Big Move Plan.

The Big Move.

The Big Move incorporated Transit City, but sought to plan transit expansion at a regional level that would include all of the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA).  This plan would work with other provincial planning documents, and focused on creating designated bus and light rail lines along primary corridors, expanding GO Transit, building an airport rail link to Union Station, and extending existing subway lines.  All of these improvements are estimated to cost $50 billion over 25 years to implement.  The Province initially committed approximately $11 billion to kick-start construction.  Metrolinx is expected to report in 2013 on how to raise an additional $40 billion in revenue to pay for the rest of the plan. This is anticipated to include a host of regional taxes and fees ranging from road tolls, sales taxes, parking levies, vehicle registration taxes, gasoline taxes, etc.

Back to Transit City – the Province committed to funding the Transit City plan, but scaled back their funding commitment with the 2008 recession that blew a hole in public coffers.  Only half the initial plan would be funded, with the remaining component of the plan to be financially figured out at a later date. The Province committed to funding the Finch, Sheppard East, Eglinton (most of it), and Scarborough LRT lines, while lines on Jane Street, Lakeshore Boulevard, Don Mills Road, Kingston Road, and in the east harbourfront had funding “postponed” .

And from there came more tragic back and forth on the fate of transit in Toronto.

Click HERE for Part 2 of Ian Clark’s look at the recent history of Toronto transit.

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