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'Congestion Everyone's Problem

Toronto Bureau Chief
Friday, August 18, 2000

The federal government must play a role in commuter and urban transit to help Canada’s major cities such as Toronto solve their gridlock problems, federal Transport Minister David Collenette declared yesterday.

But the minister’s strong views, which he concedes are not shared by all his cabinet colleagues, carry no assurance that the cheque is in the mail from Ottawa.

“Congestion is our problem,” said Mr. Collenette, citing the negative effects of gridlock on productivity, trade and air quality. “All these things have an impact on federal policy,” he said. “So we can’t say it’s somebody else’s business.”

While the constitution gives the provinces authority on matters relating to local government, Mr. Collenette said that Ottawa cannot shrug off urban problems.

“We have to have an urban strategy as a national government,” he said. “People are demanding it of us. But it doesn’t mean you get in fights with the provinces.”

Congestion should be a federal concern, he argued, because Canada has become a highly urbanized country over the last 20 years and the nature of commuting has changed.

To that end, the minister ordered VIA Rail several months ago to complete a commuter-rail strategy for Montreal and Toronto. He noted that VIA carries an increasing number of commuters into Toronto from communities beyond the reach of GO Transit, which he describes as the “subway system for the GTA.”

But so far, neither Ottawa nor Ontario will share their gas-tax revenues with transit services such as GO.

Instead, both levels of governments have announced infrastructure programs tied to specific projects. Ottawa’s proposed $2.6-billion infrastructure program over five years takes effect next April, with local municipalities expected to submit requests for a variety of big-ticket projects, including transit. While the federal program includes transit projects, the provincial one does not.

That leaves managers like GO Transit’s Gary McNeil frustrated about the future.

“I wouldn’t say I’m even cautiously optimistic,” he said yesterday. “When I see the money, I will say great [but] I am not holding my breath it will be there.”