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Metrolinx's usefulness now in question

by John Lorinc

Has Rob Ford made a monkey out of Metrolinx, the agency that runs GO Transit and is responsible for transportation planning across Greater Toronto?

Consider the optics: Dalton McGuinty’s Liberals spent years putting in place the laws and financial arrangements needed to establish the GTA-wide body, which has built an elaborate long-term strategy to crack the region’s gridlock crisis.

But it only took Toronto’s new mayor a day to blow it all apart, with his insistence that the city wants subways, not the sort of surface light-rail lines that represented a key component of the agency’s 2008 “Big Move” strategy.

Given the McGuinty government’s eagerness to co-operate with Mr. Ford, the new dynamic raises tough questions about Queen’s Park’s high-minded bid to allow land-use planning principles to guide infrastructure investment. Metrolinx’s regional transportation plan “could all go up in a fairly quick puff of smoke in the next couple of weeks,” observes Wilfrid Laurier University political scientist David Docherty.

“This is a very fluid situation,” adds University of Western Ontario local government expert Andrew Sancton. “Metrolinx has no political legitimacy other than the fact that it is an agency of the provincial government.”

Even a year ago, the Liberals would have defended their policy goals, says Prof. Docherty. Today, Queen’s Park seems content to stand aside while Toronto sorts out Mr. Ford’s new transit plan, which itself is hardly written in stone. The mayor’s own priority is a subway along Sheppard to Scarborough Town Centre. TTC chair Karen Stintz says there’s enough funding for the Eglinton LRT as well. Provincial officials insist it’s going to be one or the other, but not both, and are still wondering if Team Ford has offered up its bottom line or merely an opening gambit.

Established by statute in 2006, Metrolinx sits at the fulcrum of the exceptionally complicated legal and bureaucratic relationship between the City of Toronto and Queen’s Park.

The political relationship is no less complex. Former mayor David Miller pushed hard to persuade Queen’s Park to restore transit funding cuts made by the province during the Mike Harris years. Until the mid-1990s, Queen’s Park transferred cash directly to the Toronto Transit Commission. The McGuinty government opted instead to direct new funding into Metrolinx, which was assigned the unenviable task of looking at the entire region’s needs, not just Toronto’s.

That approach made sense politically when the Liberals were riding high in the polls and the provincial economy was strong. But with Tim Hudak’s Tories gaining ground just about everywhere and a provincial race less than a year away, the Liberals have chosen to play ball with Mr. Ford in order to protect their bastion in the 416, says pollster Nik Nanos.

“They don’t really have any choice. If they don’t, they could face significant problems in the next election.”

Projected 2031 ridership
  • Sheppard East LRT: 3,000 passengers*
  • Eglinton LRT: 5,400
  • Finch West LRT: 2,800
  • Scarborough RT: 8,000
Ridership required to achieve economic viability
for different modes operating in partial or exclusive rights of way
  • Bus Rapid Transit with bypass lanes: 2,000-8,000 passengers
  • Surface LRT: 3,000-10,000
  • Elevated / tunnelled LRT: 8,000-20,000
  • Subway / GO Transit: 15,000+

*All figures represent peak period ridership in one direction

Source: TTC

Special to The Globe and Mail