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Tories must get on board transit plan

Commuter Corner
Joseph Hall

Consider it a farewell gift from a member of a rare political persuasion - the good guys.

Whether we embrace the gift, however, or squander it in the parochial politics Alan Tonks has battled through a 35-year municipal career, only time and the provincial Tory government can tell.

Tonks, who announced in May that he will resign as the Greater Toronto Services Board’s first chair, has given the GTA a transportation plan that could save the area from slow strangulation by sprawl and congestion.

The plan, passed by the board on Friday, is the first to tie the GTA’s transportation needs to development - and the first to place transit ahead of roads and infrastructure ahead of housing.

“It’s really a document that says we should have transportation planning drive growth, and not the other way around,” Tonks says.

“It turns the traditional way we’ve done things - having transportation systems react to development - on its head.”

Briefly, the board’s Removing Roadblocks strategy calls for a far greater emphasis on public transit rather than new highways, especially in the 905 region.

By protecting potential transit corridors and pushing new express bus and rail routes out to the urban fringes, the plan would attempt to influence the way those regions grow. By improving transit alternatives, Removing Roadblocks is intended to encourage the type of high-density development that combats car-dependent urban sprawl.

With its single-family-home suburbs, sprawl eats up farmland and provides too few people in too large an area to adequately support transit systems. But alone, Tonks’ plan has no power.

Denied any real legislative clout by Queen’s Park when it was created last year, the board relies on the good-faith co-operation of local politicians from its 29 member municipalities to implement anything.

And despite the GTSB’s near-unanimous approval of the plan (Brampton Mayor Peter Robertson having found himself alone in dissent), there’s little evidence such co-operation will be forthcoming.

Indeed, Tonks’ surprise resignation was a direct result of the frustration he felt over his inability to convince many 905 politicians that a link between development and transportation even existed.

It’s unlikely, then, that 905 support of the plan was anything more than lip service. For the most part, regional municipalities have been content to see their cities and towns spread out in vast plots of single-family lots.

Approving these suburban developments has proved to be the fastest and surest way for regional leaders to increase their tax bases and build the kind of amenities that typically get them re-elected.

Suburban politicians have acted in this narrow fashion almost always and everywhere. It’s likely naive to believe they will change now - so this is where the province must come in.

If the plan has any chance, the province likely will have to bypass local politicians completely by adopting one of two strategies.

Either Queen’s Park could create a new board of community leaders with the independence and clout to push the plan through over municipal objections, or the province could do the job itself, through a beefed-up municipal affairs ministry.

But there is also the matter of money. Unless virtually each and every municipal politician in the GTA is lying, there is no money at their level of government to expand transit services.

And these services, along with any transportation plan that depends on them, will wither and die without the financial support of the provincial and perhaps even the federal governments.

Readers can contact Joseph Hall by phone at (416) 869-4390 or e-mail at