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Hopes ride on transit plan

Tonks sees expanded public systems as key to future of GTA

By Joseph Hall
Toronto Star Transportation Reporter
Saturday August 7, 1999

A transit-first plan to tackle Greater Toronto’s crippling traffic congestion will begin to shape the region’s transportation future by year’s end, the head of the Greater Toronto Services Board says.

Alan Tonks, whose agency hopes to eventually take control of most of the area’s inter-regional services, says his group will hammer out a transportation plan over the next four months and provide Greater Toronto with a blueprint for the next 20 to 50 years.

Tonks says the plan would:

  • Make transit integration and expansion - not further road construction the Number 1 priority for moving people across Greater Toronto.
  • Attract much needed federal and provincial funding - until now almost totally absent - to Greater Toronto’s 16 transit agencies. The federal government is proposing a $4 billion program, to be split 50-50 with the provinces, to improve road safety and boost transit systems.
  • Determine the service and funding levels that would allow those disparate agencies to most efficiently serve the entire region.

The document must also deal with municipal planning issues and look at the exploding urban sprawl - a pattern of automobile-dependent, largely single-family home development - that is transforming the area’s outer regions.

“I think we can have (the plan) in four months,” Tonks said. “And once we have the plan, we take that to the feds and the province for our funding.”

The proposed framework will be the focus of a day-long services board workshop Monday.

Bringing together officials from all five GTA regions and their 16 transit agencies, the meeting will also include transportation consultants, and municipal and transit officials from Hamilton-Wentworth.

Many of the major issues to be discussed have already been identified through past studies and by roving groups of services board staff who have travelled the regions, Tonks said.

Most important among these, he says, is a push for a greater commitment to public transit throughout Greater Toronto at the expense of future road construction.

“Transit is absolutely on top of the priority list,” said the former Metro chair, whose agency now has sole responsibility for GO Transit.

“A more heavy lean toward transit initiatives is the only solution to a sustainable region and a competitive region.”

Also a high priority is deciding how much money each commuter agency would be allotted from a common transit pot that Tonks hopes the services board will control.

He says any plan would have to define the service levels, government operating subsidies, and capital funds each agency would require and receive.

To ease the substantial burden of a more integrated, expansive transit network, Tonks would also look for funding from senior governments.

The federal government has traditionally played little or no role in funding public transit and the province bowed out last year, downloading all costs on to municipalities.

“I think the province is out of step with the country and I think the country is out of step with the rest of the world in terms of recognizing that urban transit and sustainable transit initiatives are in keeping with all of your quality of life issues,” Tonks said.

He says the mere presence of a workable Greater Toronto transportation plan - showing the economic and environmental advantages of higher dependence on transit - would be enough to leverage money from both Ottawa and Queen’s Park.

Queen’s Park money might flow from either a share of the provincial gasoline tax or Ontario’s Roadway to Prosperity initiative.

In Ottawa, Tonks is confident he can tap into a national infrastructure program which, he says, have paid for far less important initiatives.

“If there is a new infrastructure program from the federal government, I’d hope it would be a more transit-oriented and transportation-oriented one as opposed to spending on bocce courts,” Tonks said.

“Don’t get me wrong, I think bocce is the greatest game in the world, but there are bigger priorities,” he said, referring to a previous Liberal government program that built courts for the bowling-like game with federal money.

Tonks’ dealings with federal and provincial officials, however, may well prove his least onerous.

His most difficult task will almost surely lie in convincing his own municipalities to co-operate on a plan.

Response to the very idea of the services board has ranged from lukewarm to hostile in the regions surrounding Toronto, where the board has been seen as a possible threat to municipal sovereignty.

And in Toronto itself, some at city hall have no faith the regions are committed to real transit expansion.

“The farther out you move from the city of Toronto, the lower the commitment is to public transit,” said Toronto Transit Commission chair Howard Moscoe.

“The GTA is car-driven. It pays lip service to public transit, but it can’t even get its act together with all these disparate bus services that can’t even communicate with one another,” he said.

Tonks should find at least one strong ally in newly appointed TTC chief general manager Rick Ducharme.

Ducharme, outgoing head of the inter-regional GO Transit service, has said he would make it one of his main goals as the top TTC administrator to help the services board gain control of transit funding and service co-ordination throughout the GTA.

Tonks he’s convinced all Greater Toronto municipalities will sign on to the plan.

“I think that the compelling nature of the plan and the obvious advantages … will be self-evident,” he said.