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Need for speed drives Madrid miracle


The provincial government, about to hand over a $670-million cheque to extend Toronto’s subway system deep into the wilds of York Region, proclaimed in its budget last week that the move, along with money for bus ways in Brampton and Mississauga, was the beginning of “a new era” for public transit in the Greater Toronto Area. And perhaps it is.

But opening day for the subway extension to Vaughan is, officials estimate, still at least 10 years away, provided Ottawa agrees to pay its share. And waiting another 10 years for eight measly kilometres of subway, after building only about that much in total over the previous 25 years, hardly sounds like a new era. What it sounds like is more of the same.

So what would a real new era in public transit look like? Consider Madrid, population 3 million, at the centre of a region with 5.8 million people. While Toronto took eight years to produce the stub-like, 5.5-kilometre Sheppard subway, this Spanish city and public-transit paradise has built more than 120 kilometres of subway in 10 years. And more tracks, along with new light rail lines and buses, are on the way.

Madrid’s new era arrived in the mid-1990s, explains Carlos Cristobal-Pinto, director of planning for Madrid’s regional transportation authority, just as the city’s suburban population began to expand with increased immigration from Latin America, Eastern Europe and North Africa.

It started slowly, with a 10-kilometre extension of Madrid’s circle subway line completed in 1995. But then centre-right politician Alberto Ruiz-Gallardon, now Madrid’s mayor, became president of the regional government, after elections in which his party promised to build 28 kilometres of new subways in four years.

Officials in Mr. Cristobal-Pinto’s agency thought the scheme was ridiculous, he said: “Twelve, 15, 20 kilometres maybe, but 28 is impossible to build in four years.”

Then the government decided it really wanted 55 kilometres, not 28. And still in four years — in time for the next election, of course. You can almost see Toronto Transit Commission engineers’ heads exploding. But the unthinkable happened. Madrid actually built 56.3 kilometres, 38 new stations, all completed on time in 1999 at the cost of �1.6-billion ($2.25-billion), including vehicles.

Now, after building almost an entire TTC subway system (which has 62.6 kilometres of track), Madrid did not sit back and relax. Driven by Mr. Ruiz-Gallardon, Mr. Cristobal-Pinto said, the government promised yet another 55 kilometres, again before elections in four years. And, in 2003, at a cost of �2.8-billion ($3.9-billion), 54.6 kilometres of new subway opened for business, much of it linking suburbs southwest of central Madrid.

How can this be? Mr. Cristobal-Pinto said the government’s four-year political deadlines were very clear, so his team simply found a way to make it happen. Plus, environmental assessments in Spain take only three or four months. Here in Ontario, that alone can take two years or more.

The TTC’s website on the Spadina subway extension lays out the rest of Toronto’s slow-motion process: After an environmental assessment, the design stage can take two to three years. Construction can take as long as four. One TTC official told me that, on the Sheppard line, designing the Sheppard-Yonge station alone took two years.

So perhaps some Spanish-style red-tape cutting over here is in order. There are other things Madrid does differently, too. While this doesn’t explain the whole Madrid miracle, the transit agency has been willing to experiment with public-private partnerships. One of the new subway lines is operated by a private firm with a long-term lease, and Madrid is now building several massive underground bus interchanges, with tunnels to whisk buses out of traffic, with private investment. Many bus routes in the region are also run by private firms.

And there is also Mr. Cristobal-Pinto’s agency, a broad regional transit body with, it seems, much broader powers than the proposed Greater Toronto Transit Authority, which was again promised in the provincial budget.

Back in Madrid, now with 220 kilometres of subway, they just can’t stop building public transit. A �4.4-billion ($6-billion) plan, set for completion by 2007, will build another 47.4 kilometres of subway and 45 kilometres of light rail in suburban areas. And the national government, responsible for highways, plans to build 200 kilometres of bus-only lanes.

“I could keep listening to you all day,” said Toronto transit consultant Ed Levy, as Mr. Cristobal-Pinto finished his presentation to a transit conference here. “And crying more copiously as I listen.”

But Mr. Cristobal-Pinto seemed to have no magic secret to share with his audience. The reason for the public transit miracle seems actually quite simple: Governments in Spain have simply made public transit a priority, and voters have too.

Mr. Levy added: “The motto is strike while the iron is hot, and strike hard.”