Toronto Needs a Public Referendum on The Big Move

I SPENT LAST summer researching the issue of rapid transit in Toronto, Ontario. I spoke to 10 Toronto-based individuals all working in the transit field about ‘The Big Move,’ Metrolinx’s proposal for improving the rapid transit system in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA). Metrolinx is an agency of the Province of Ontario, created in 2006 by the Metrolinx Act, with a mandate to improve all modes of transportation in the GTHA. These projects must also be sustainable and contribute to a positive quality of life. You might know Metrolinx if you take the GO Train, or have heard of the new PRESTO project, or the Union-Pearson Express

The Big Move is a proposal Metrolinx launched in 2008 that includes a 25-year $50 billion plan for the region. There is currently $16 billion worth of transit projects currently underway, but Metrolinx recommends a further $34 billion commitment for future projects in order to improve the way we move around in the region. The hope is that with this commitment, rapid transit, including light rail, bus rapid transit, and subway extensions, will give GTHA commuters new and better options to travel within the region, will reduce congestion and better serve the growing population.

MoveMetrolinx

Where do we stand right now?

$50 billion is no small sum of money. As you can imagine, committing this kind of money to a project is an uphill climb for any sitting government, and these types of decisions are met with much debate and controversy. Be it health care, roads, foreign investment, you name it – $50 billion is a large price tag.

Yet transit in the GTHA seems to be a battle unique unto itself. Proposals like The Big Move have come and gone in the region for decades, yet commute times by automobile are possibly the worst in North America (at 82 minutes per day) making this an economic problem as well as an environmental and social one. Despite past efforts to push forward upgrades, you and I see the problem worsen. Edward J. Levy summarizes a century of transit-related proposals in his recent e-book, Rapid Transit in Toronto, and is worth a read to get up to speed (pun intended) on just how many times the region has attempted to tackle the lackluster transit network (and failed).

How would financing work?

In May, Metrolinx provided the province with its recommendations for how to finance the additional $34 billion needed for the entirety of The Big Move proposal.

metrolinxfunding

The expected revenue from each of these methods is $1.3 billion, $350 billion, $330 million, and $100 million, respectively. Torontoist.com has provided a breakdown of how these taxes will affect you depending on your family size and lifestyle:

  • For the average student: $117 a year
  • For a two-car, five-person family: $977 a year
  • For an average senior: $140 a year
  • For the overall average household: $477 a year
  • The average annual per capita cost: $179

And this, says Metrolinx, compares to:

  • The average cost of congestion per household: $1,619 a year

What’s the problem?

What exactly is standing in the way of investing in GTHA transit? This question became top of mind time and time again, so I decided to base my research on a hypothesis: that the lack of financial commitment to rapid-transit must be the result of external interest group pressure, business lobbyists, citizen groups and others who specifically do not want money being spent on transit upgrades.

The short answer is that this hypothesis was incorrect, according to those I spoke with. Interviewees from the Toronto Board of Trade, Metrolinx, the Toronto Transit Commission, the Ministry of Environment, Evergreen and others indicated that the transit investment issue is highly political, but that external interests are not the problem.

Turns out, the delay stems from three main issues: top-down decision-making, a lack of recent political champions, and unproductive city council debates. Many noted that there have not been enough politicians backing transit investment, and a championed proposal is often needed to gather support from other politicians and the public. The individuals I interviewed were concerned that debates happening at Toronto City Council have and will continue to confuse the public and impact the implementation of The Big Move.

These local debates also obscure the fact that the funding of these projects is to come from the province, so the opinions of council members have no direct impact on whether particular projects in The Big Move come to fruition. However, what they will certainly do is delay meaningful and practical debate on the funding sources for the projects. Any delay for a problem as serious as congestion and pollution are fundamentally unproductive.

Are there solutions?

Recommendation 1: Hold a public referendum

Some interviewees suggested that the nature of a discussion affects its outcome. In this case, GTHA residents have not been directly asked where they stand on this issue and their opinions have largely been speculated upon. I don’t believe the conversation has been real enough for the people of southern Ontario – they hear the plans and they see the news, yet nothing changes.

However, if the city or the province asked for the public to vote in a referendum, the public would be asked to engage directly with the issue and think realistically about their preferences. This is what some cities in the United States and Europe have done. Offering the public a chance to vote in this type of process is called direct democracy.

Recommendation 2: Regional representation

The GTHA region is heavily fragmented with a mixture of cities, municipalities, and townships represented. A few of my interviewees mentioned that this new classification of the GTHA is problematic because there is no individual at city council or Queen’s Park who represents and advocates for the GTHA as a whole. This makes it difficult to solve problems or push forward infrastructure development for rapid transit quickly or efficiently. If we are to continue to distinguish the GTHA as an interconnected region we should consider creating a new electoral region at the local and provincial level.

Recommendation 3: Respect expert knowledge

The Big Move is the result of years of expert research by Metrolinx. Intense city council debates over the last year have created tension and confusion between the informed expert research and the information shared with the public via many politicians. The Province should consider intervening in debates when misinformation is being provided as I believe they have a responsibility to uphold what is factual and to clearly discredit what is false.

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This post was originally published in Alternatives Journal Online, Canada’s Environmental Magazine.