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Ontario debated taking TTC away from city hall

But considered too risky: New agency doling out cash provides political solution

James Wallace
National Post

The province considered snatching the Toronto Transit Commission out of the hands of city council earlier this year, sources have told the National Post.

While the city was publicly blaming Queen’s Park for its budget crisis — citing inadequate transit funding as a major reason for a $305-million shortfall — the province was quietly considering appropriating the region’s largest transit service, a senior government source said.

However, the political risk of being involved in directly managing the TTC proved unpalatable to Cabinet and the government’s advisors and, instead, the province settled upon the idea of having an independent agency dole out transit funding.

“They’re off the hook,” said Brian Ashton, chairman of the TTC.

“They set up an organization to inoculate themselves from public criticism.”

Mr. Ashton has been trying to pin the city’s transit problems on Queen’s Park for a while now. Earlier this year, the councillor for Ward 36 (Scarborough Southwest) developed an anti-government ad campaign loosely based on the popular Where’s Waldo? books that challenge readers to find Waldo in a crowd of cartoon characters.

The TTC’s “Where’s Mike?” campaign would have seen photographs of a crowd mounted on city buses but Mike Harris, the Premier and principal character in the ad, would have been missing.

“You couldn’t find Mike because he doesn’t fund transit,” Mr. Ashton said.

The province effectively torpedoed the campaign, along with the city’s strategy to finger someone else for its budget crisis, by turning to the Greater Toronto Services Board for guidance on transit.

The GTSB oversees regional development in the greater Toronto area but is only an advisory body. It voted last week to approve a report that paves the way for the province to create an independent agency to deliver transit funding to municipal transit services.

The new agency would oversee the growth, co-ordination and funding of transit service in the Toronto region and play a larger role in developing the region — from road construction to the protection of environmentally sensitive areas such as the Oak Ridges Moraine.

Queen’s Park is coincidentally working on plans to dole out $100-million in new transit cash to municipalities — half of which it hopes will come from the federal government — through the proposed agency.

“It’s going to be a finger-pointing magnet,” Mr. Ashton said, suggesting that whenever the province is hit in future with criticism over transit, economic development or the environment in the Toronto region, it can point to the new agency.

Gordon Chong, chairman of the GTSB, said the exact nature of the agency is still evolving.

Mr. Chong recommended the creation of a powerful new body to oversee “growth management” in the broader Toronto area, have the power to levy a transportation tax on gasoline and make deals to allow the private sector to finance and run public transit.

His vision of the new agency was amended Friday, with some board members suggesting the mandate of the GO Transit board could be expanded to fit the bill.

“Some people think you could use the existing GO Transit as a vehicle and modify it, which is fine by me,” Mr. Chong said.

“I mean if you change it and morph it into a different kind of agency that is akin to what I want to do, who cares,” he said.

Chris Hodgson, the Minister of Municipal Affairs, could not be reached for comment.

Alexandra Gillespie, a spokeswoman for the Minister, said the government is “looking forward to getting the board’s final report, which is due out this month.

“We’re certainly pleased that they are looking at creative solutions,” Ms. Gillespie said.