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Transit gets some token support

By Joseph Hall
Toronto Star Transportation Reporter

Numerous signs are pointing to a new dawn for public transit in Canada as the country heads into the next millennium.

A national survey released last week by pollsters Environics International showed that 50 per cent of Canadians see transit expansion as the most important improvement needed for local transportation.

That’s up from 41 per cent five years ago. It’s also a far more popular option than improving roads or building new ones, an alternative that has plummeted in public favour to 19 per cent from 30 per cent since 1995.

What’s most encouraging is that we are finally rising above the narrow logic that led to the crushing congestion bind we’re now in.

Since the 1970s, transit has taken a back seat to road construction around Greater Toronto. If the roads get congested, two decades of thinking went, then widen them. Or build new ones.

New highways are magnets for car-dependent developments

It seemed obvious. And, unfortunately, it still does at some higher levels at Queen’s Park.

The problem, one that the general public is quickly recognizing, is that building new roads leads to ever greater congestion.

New highways are magnets for car-dependent developments. Forming along any new or expanded roadway, sprawling stretches of single-family, multi-garage homes quickly devour any excess traffic capacity that’s been created.

“People see more and more and more roads,” says Environics research director Angus McAllister, who conducted the poll of 1,500 adults for the Canadian Urban Transit Association. “And they are starting to realize that the paradigm has to change. More is not better.”

The federal government shows signs of understanding. In a cryptic announcement made earlier this year, Ottawa pegged transit as the possible recipient of new money.

In the GTA, Greater Toronto Services Board chair Alan Tonks has promised to unveil a plan early next year that could improve transit across the region’s municipalities.

Envisioning a series of new, high-speed streetcar lines and fleets of express buses flowing between Toronto and the 905 region, Tonks’ plan will be both timely and ambitious.

As such, of course, it will face rigorous opposition.

Emphasizing free, cross-border access to municipal transit services, the plan is sure to draw heat from both transit managers and local politicians.

It will also come under fire from powerful construction lobbies, who see highway building as one of their most lucrative pursuits.

Of the obstacles, funding will be the largest.

The province dumped all the costs of building and running commuter systems on the municipalities last year, leaving Ontario cities as the only urban centres in the western world with no senior government support for their transit systems.

But October’s throne speech offered a single word of hope that this might change.

There it was. Lonely and looking a little lost, the twin-syllable “transit” appeared, hinting that Queen’s Park might reconsider funding it at some future point.

We can only hope that that single word grows up enough to support Tonks’ ambitious vision.