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Toronto-area transit policy: Big mo for the Big Move?

by Julia Deans

Over the past year, our organization asked nearly 1,000 leaders to discuss the major challenges facing the Toronto region. Whether corporate CEOs or environmental leaders, non-profit executives or students, poverty activists or entrepreneurs, most said their top concern was quickly improving the capacity to move people and goods around the region.

Yes, transportation is a political issue. But it’s much more than that to the six million people who want better options for getting to their jobs, homes and social lives. They don’t need expert reports to know that congestion is getting worse, that commute times are increasing and that our tailpipes are sending more and more nasty fumes into the air. This all means a big drag on our economy, not to mention our health and happiness.

Most people also know that, if we don’t move quickly, things will only get worse. The Toronto region will have two million more people and 1½ million more cars by 2031. The need for public transit will grow even faster, owing to our aging population and to increasing demand from newcomers and lower-income people living in transit-poor areas.

Ontario listened to the call at our 2003 Toronto summit to work with Toronto-area municipalities to create a regional transportation authority. The mayors and regional chairs who helped launch Metrolinx in 2006 recognized that many trips cross municipal boundaries and that people would be best served by regional co-ordination. In 2008, they approved Metrolinx’s long-term plan, The Big Move, and the province committed $11.5-billion to make it happen. In the past year, public frustration over long commutes and slow movement of goods has been tempered by the news that shovels are in the ground and that vehicle contracts have been signed.

Could The Big Move be better? Maybe - few plans are perfect. But any extensive revisiting at this stage risks prolonging our wait for improvements and costing more of our increasingly hard-earned tax dollars. How will that play out politically? Recent elections in Canada and abroad have shown that people have little appetite for anything but the smartest government spending.

Canadians need governments to create better transportation, and municipal governments need the support and resources of other governments and also of the public to get the job done. But very few people see how transportation plans relate to their lives.

Governments must do a much better job of rallying support for their transportation agendas. They must make the benefits crystal clear for every demographic group - whether it’s more efficient deliveries for business owners or faster commutes for students and parents.

The public must also be engaged in conversation about the true costs of creating the transportation we need and want, and how we’re going to pay them. Whichever plan is pursued, new funding sources - whether road pricing, dedicated taxes or user fees - have to be considered.

The public can also help call on the federal government to do its part. It’s clearly in the national interest to ensure that Canada’s major cities have effective transportation infrastructure. Most OECD countries have funded national plans in this area.

Civic leaders and the public need to do a much better job of making their views known. Hundreds of leaders have told us how much our lives and economy are suffering because of outmoded transportation infrastructure. Now that we’re finally on the road to improvement, these leaders should make their views known to the politicians deciding our transportation journey. If they don’t, an unwelcome detour may well result.

Julia Deans is CEO of the non-profit Greater Toronto CivicAction Alliance (formerly the Toronto City Summit Alliance), a multi-sectoral coalition of leaders who address social, economic and environmental issues facing the Toronto region (