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Solving a regional commuter crunch

Sep. 20, 2006. 06:06 AM

Mississauga Mayor Hazel McCallion sat in a room with Citigroup Canada officials, fielding questions she hadn’t quite expected.

The city had just won a huge deal with the financial-services giant, which had announced it is building a $59-million state-of-the-art headquarters in Mississauga that will be the hub of Canadian operations. That’s 2,000 jobs.

The question of the hour � How will those people get to work?

“It was all transportation questions, no other services,” said McCallion. “What can we do to get to Mississauga? How do I get from Scarborough to Mississauga to work for Citibank?”

It is the new reality. The bedroom community of Mississauga has bedroom cities of its own, not the least of which is Toronto. Ditto Brampton, Richmond Hill, Vaughan, Markham, and Oshawa.

Now transportation issues � commuting throughout the GTA � are key questions with municipal elections weeks away. Residents all over are asking: How do we get to work and home? Why is my commute taking so long?

Roads and highways are jammed. Transit is inadequate.

Halton Region chair Joyce Savoline says voters have every right to be mad that so little has been accomplished on the transportation file since the 2003 municipal election.

“I think they are angry,” says Savoline. “They just talk over their back fences instead of mobilizing.”

That’s because transportation is not a local issue. Voters in Mississauga have no control over whether voters in Toronto back a regime that wants to take down the Gardiner Expressway. Torontonians have limited say over the future of GO Transit, which is so integral to drawing workers from the suburbs to fill downtown office buildings.

“There is not a good-enough linking of the municipalities to each other in the Greater Toronto Area,” says Savoline, who is not seeking re-election. “You hear of things like the Oakville bus goes to Square One. Big deal. That’s a drop in the bucket. The borders need to break down. There needs to be larger thinking on how to integrate municipalities.”

We are interconnected in ways we haven’t been before. Barrie’s commuters come, not to Toronto, but by and large to Vaughan, Richmond Hill and Brampton. Kitchener-Waterloo residents work in Mississauga. Peterborough is a bedroom community to Oshawa.

Many see the pattern of decades of commuting reversing: more motorists leaving the 416 area for jobs in the 905 region than are coming in to Toronto. Over the last 15 years, Toronto has lost 100,000 jobs, according to the Toronto Board of Trade, while the rest of the GTA has gained 700,000 jobs. But many people still want to live in downtown Toronto.

“It’s changing drastically,” says McCallion. “Not just in Mississauga, it’s all over. Offices are moving over to the 905. We have got to address that issue. (Traffic) is going the other way.”

Meanwhile, population growth within the GTA is about 100,000 a year. With the province out to protect green space, the idea now is to densify � to build up rather than out. But are we prepared?

Savoline asked the elephant-in-the-room question, posing it of her colleagues and the staff supporting GO’s board of directors at their last meeting while noting the worsening gridlock during massive growth.

“Are we planning properly for this?” wondered Savoline. “Are we dovetailing what we’re doing, knowing what’s happening in the province? Are we going to create a plan that matches that growth plan?

“Are we going to do a transportation master plan to fit the province’s growth plan?”

The answer is no, there is no transportation master plan.

In fact, the agency that’s supposed to answer that question is not operating yet. It is the Greater Toronto Transportation Authority � with no office, staff or executive. Any master plan this body comes up with will be at the mercy of elected officials from municipalities involved in the GTTA. Infighting, turf wars or NIMBYism would kill any cross-regional plan and leave us with what we have now: a bunch of piecemeal transit projects that proponents hope will interconnect one day, yet based on the old model of getting people to Toronto, not out.

For example:

  • Mississauga’s Transitway creates better east-west links by giving buses their own lanes.

  • York Region’s Viva express bus service is packed on routes that feed TTC subway stations.

  • Durham, Oakville and Burlington concentrate on feeding suburban GO stations.

  • The province is backing the TTC Spadina subway extension into York Region.

The way in to Toronto is easy: Union Station is the hub that serves downtown workplaces and office towers.

Alas, the way into Toronto is also gridlocked: roads can’t take any more cars; TTC and GO can’t take any more people. Expansion plans are years away.

So employers go to the ‘burbs.

But transit lags well behind in the suburbs, the cost of bus operations is prohibitive, and the notion of riding a bus an anathema to commuters. Light rail and subways don’t exist in the 905. And job centres aren’t near GO stations.

“The way the suburbs have evolved, (employment centres) are not concentrated,” says Gary McNeil, GO’s managing director. “It’s really dispersed, therefore more people choose to use their car. Providing transit service costs quite a bit of money.”

“The suburbanization of jobs is a huge thing,” says University of Toronto professor Eric Miller, an expert in transportation engineering. “We have more people in the suburbs, which are car-oriented. More jobs in the suburbs.”

Miller will be among those crunching data from this year’s Transportation Tomorrow survey, which will be released in spring following a survey of homes from Niagara to Kitchener, from Barrie to Oshawa. It will provide the clearest picture of how we move around.

The automobile’s share of the transportation market has been rising for decades, a trend Miller says will continue.

“We haven’t exactly been investing in transit over the last decade. So transit infrastructures are not keeping up with the growth.”