Rendering of the UP Express by Metrolinx

Rendering of the UP Express by Metrolinx

Many cities have rail links to their airports, including Vancouver, New York, London, Amsterdam, and Paris. Although many of these are cities historically built on rail lines, municipalities built during the postwar era are now adding trains to add sustainable transportation options to their transit systems. Toronto will join in next spring with the Union-Pearson Express (UPX), set to open for service in time for the Pan Am Games in July 2015. This long-awaited service will take only 25 minutes and offer travellers luggage racks, luggage tags, and wi-fi. It will make only two stops (Weston and Bloor West GO Stations), reaching top speeds of 79 km/h. It’s particularly needed in Toronto, where traffic in Mississauga has increased to unmanageable proportions in the past few years. Current options include express buses run by the TTC, but for many in the region a bus stop or route is too far awa to make the trip viable by transit.

However, since September Metrolinx officials have been fending off accusations that the cost of the UPX service will prevent many from using it–at least on a regular basis. Metrolinx chair Bruce McQuaig played the elitism card, saying that the train is “meant to be an extension of the airport experience, rather than a daily commuter service.” (As if people most people using Lester B. Pearson International Airport (YYZ) don’t fly economy and take the cheapest alternative to the airport). The real goal is to help Metrolinx recover operating costs–estimated at $79 million annually.

The UPX fares were finally announced this week. Riders will pay $27.50 for a one-way trip, dropping to $19 for Presto card users. Airport workers can also purchase a $300 monthly pass which would work out to $7.50 per ride if they used it for 40 rides per month. Presto, at the moment, really only makes sense for those who cross the region on a regular basis: 1.3 million riders per month use it to access ten transit systems in the region, including Durham Region Transit, Mississauga’s MiWay, and the Hamilton Street Railway. Presto will be fully implemented by 2016–currently only a handful of TTC subway stations and the 510 Spadina streetcar have Presto card scanners.

Luckily, the UPX won’t be the only option to get to YYZ. The 192 Airport Rocket bus, which currently runs from Kipling Station to the airport, has a daily ridership of 4,500, is equipped with luggage racks and makes only three stops on its 20-minute trip to/from Terminal 1. The bus runs every 10 minutes for most of the day and costs the same as a regular bus, subway, or streetcar. The TTC is interested in doubling its ridership in 2015, and will spend $100,000 on efforts to raise its visibility. So the Rocket remains an option for those who can’t afford the money train.

As promised, new Toronto mayor Rob Ford has taken significant steps to kill Transit City, Toronto’s plan to build several new LRT lines in the coming years. Ford’s most recent move has been to encourage an extension of the Sheppard subway, which has only slightly more ridership (about 46,000/weekday) as the Finch bus line or the Spadina streetcar. Among the many problems with Ford’s proposal: a subway extension would cost much more, serve fewer people, cost the city and province a lot of money in plan redevelopment, and it would not be built until Ford loses what is left of his hair…not to mention the next municipal election.

The Sheppard subway extension would cost more than ten times as much as the LRT line proposed under Transit City.  The mayor’s office is proposing a $13 billion extension to the existing subway line, instead of the $1.1 billion LRT line adopted in the Transit City plan. At least $5 billion would be raised through development cost levies and tax increment financing (TIF). TIF has been used extensively in the US, normally in areas that have suffered disinvestment for years, have a majority of low-income residents, low land values and often, an under-used rail line. When the state DOT takes on a transit-oriented development in the area, TIF is used to leverage funds: the city floats a bond and the money from the increased property values upon completion is used to fund the development. However, TIF hasn’t been used in Canada; to use it in Toronto, the proposed subway development would have to be approved by the province of Ontario. The laws governing TIF and development-cost levies would need to be updated. None of this is likely to happen before this year’s provincial election, and in Canada, governmental regime changes are death knells to public transit proposals.

There is a whole literature around public-private partnerships (or P3s), which have been very common in the past two decades. State infrastructure is expensive, whether it is hospitals, highways or LRT lines. In order to finance these projects, all three levels of government have become accustomed to contributing a part of the capital costs, while the private sector carries the majority of the burden. This in itself is not unusual in Canada: Vancouver’s Canada Line was built this way. While they seem to be good for the municipal budget, P3s often speed through crucial stages such as public participation. Private companies are not elected officials or state authorities; they aren’t as concerned about involving local residents in the planning process. This is part of their appeal for state authorities: a more streamlined process (as former BC Minister of Transport Kevin Falcon put it, when he eliminated TransLink’s elected board in favour of one made up of his private-sector appointees). Councillor Doug Ford, Rob Ford’s brother, recently said that he believed in the strong mayor system, where the mayor “should have veto power…he should have enough power to stop council.” Any P3 has the potential for less public control and less accountability.

There’s also the issue of ownership and maintenance of the line after its construction, and this is where things get a little sticky. Vancouver transit passengers complain to TransLink, for example, when they can’t find maps of the station, they want more security at stations, etc. But in fact, the British Columbia Rapid Transit Company (a subsidiary of TransLink) runs the Expo and Millennium lines, and ProTrans BC runs the Canada Line. This complexity is invisible to the frustrated passenger, and as a result TransLink, as a provincial body, bears the brunt of the criticism; it takes longer for TransLink to implement changes in customer service, orientation and other operational issues since it must go through an intermediary.

Ford argues that P3s using private funding are commonly used in Hong Kong (skeptics have pointed out that there might be a slight discrepancy in the densities between Toronto and Hong Kong). The Sheppard-Yonge corridor has attracted condo development, as John Lorinc and Kelly Grant point out (“What it will take to make subway plan a reality”Globe and Mail), and there may well be developers interested in backing a new subway line. But the fact is that development has been much slower than either Mel Lastman or Rob Ford would like, and the ridership of the Sheppard line is no higher than the city’s busiest bus and streetcar lines. If the Sheppard extension is built and new development doesn’t happen as quickly as planned, the public will have to provide the funding shortfall.

A Sheppard subway extension would probably serve fewer people than the proposed LRT: the subway line would be 8km long and have 7 stops, while the LRT would be 12 km and have 26 stops. Anyone who’s driven or taken the bus along the busy section between Kennedy and Morningside will tell you that better transit is definitely needed here; a subway line would bypass this section altogether. Despite the Province’s (and Premier McGuinty’s) lackluster support of Transit City, the plan did propose much better service for Toronto’s suburbs, where the immigrant population is high; immigrants in Toronto have a much higher transit commuting rate than non-immigrants. Ford’s argument that “everyone wants subways” doesn’t fly either…despite the miniscule amount of subway infrastructure in the inner suburbs, there is barely any difference in ridership between the suburbs and the downtown. David Hulchanski’s “Three Cities” report, tracing thirty years of income polarization in Toronto, showed that 31% of those living in the inner city travelled to work by transit compared to 33% of those who lived in the outer suburbs.

Outside of the thorny acronymous issues of TIF and PPP, there is the incredible amount of taxpayers’ time and money Ford is wasting on forcing the TTC and Metrolinx to drop the plans they’ve been working on for years and instantly come up with a new subway plan. Everyone has been frustrated at the slow pace of building and financing expensive subway lines, and that was the appeal of the Transit City plan. Ford’s proposal, even if it made any financial sense, would take years and years to get off the ground, and by then Ford and McGuinty won’t be in power any more (remember the proposed Queen subway line?) Transit City, for all its criticisms, was adopted and funded by the Province. Ground has been broken. Contracts have been signed. We have only to recall the tumultuous history of the original Sheppard subway to know how rare this is, and how hard Toronto residents, councillors, and transit advocates fought to get a plan that worked for the growing inner suburbs. Bringing all of this momentum to a screeching halt has left Toronto with one hell of a concussion; Transit City languishes in a tangled heap. When your skeptics are people like Dr. Eric Miller and former city budget chief Shelley Carroll, you might want to call in the paramedics and do some damage control.

Housing and transportation infrastructure have made major impacts on the social and spatial geography of our towns and cities. While there are many examples of the two being planned together, researchers tend to work in separate silos. The recent trend towards planning for more sustainable cities has produced a number of policy initiatives to join the two areas. In the US, the Departments of Transportation (DOT) and Housing and Urban Development (HUD) are establishing a Sustainable Communities Initiative that will offer grants to metropolitan areas to coordinate land use and transportation planning, promote livability and transit-oriented development. In Canada, the Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) and Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) just launched EQuilibrium, will provide financial, technical and promotional assistance to neighbourhood development projects across the country chosen through a national competition. Community projects will be evaluated on energy; land use and housing; water, waste water and stormwater; transportation; natural environment; and financial viability. A brief look at planning documents at the City of Toronto, City of Brampton, Peel Region, and the Province of Ontario, highlights housing and transportation policies and the attempt to integrate these areas.

Housing

Housing has long been a major issue for the City of Toronto. The City’s Perspectives on Housing Tenure (2006) notes the need for more rental housing, particularly considering its role as the major immigrant reception area in Canada: 45% of Toronto’s immigrants live in rental housing, and 74% of recent immigrants who arrived less than two years ago. Younger households also place a strong demand on rental housing. Yet rent has become increasingly unaffordable since few new rental buildings have been built since the passing of the Condominium Act in 1976: from 1996-2006, only 5% of new housing built was rental. Rental conversion to condos is also a major issue: like other municipalities in Canada, the City of Toronto has placed strong controls on rental conversion.

In 2003, the City of Brampton endorsed a Municipal Housing Capital Facilities By-law, one of the prerequisites for the Region of Peel to receive its share of $680 million in federal affordable housing grants. The by-law would allow the Region of Peel to access both federal and provincial funds and enter into other incentive agreements with housing providers to develop affordable housing. Brampton’s Official Plan (2008) asserts the goal to provide for a range of housing opportunities (types, densities, tenure, and cost) to meet the diverse needs of people from various social, cultural, and economic backgrounds. They prescribe residential density (ranging from 30 units/acre to 200 units/acre) and mix (upscale executive and single detached to apartments and maisonettes) (Policy 4.1.1.2). They may require developers to provide affordable housing and prioritize applications for affordable housing (4.1.6.1).

Transportation

Transportation has also been a major issue in the City of Toronto, with its plethora of subway, streetcar, and bus routes. Toronto’s Transit City Plan (2006), with plans to build seven new LRT lines, is approved and funded by the Province of Ontario and linked to the Big Move, a larger plan being developed by Metrolinx, the regional transit authority. Under this plan, the region plans to construct to more than 1200 km of rapid transit lines, enabling 80% of people living in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Region (GTHA) to be within 2km of rapid transit.

The City of Brampton’s Strategic Plan outlines its commitment to new roads, trails, better transit service and seamless connections to popular destinations in the Greater Toronto Area. Peel Region has an Official Plan objective to achieve a sustainable land use and transportation system, and Brampton’s Official Plan designates Bus Rapid Transit, Primary and Secondary Transit Corridors (4.4.4.2).

Housing + Transportation

The City of Toronto has a strong tradition of integrating housing with transportation, including aggressive marketing of air rights and available excess land parcels by the TTC, density bonus around subway stations, and city zoning classification changes around transit stations to permit higher density development. Recent efforts to plan more sustainable cities have continued to link housing and transportation infrastructure. The City’s Official Plan (2006) identifies “the Avenues”, underused lands along Toronto’s arterial roads in commercial and mixed-use areas, for future growth. These “offer the opportunity to increase the number of people living along major transit routes and to make use of underutilized infrastructure.”

The City of Brampton’s Official Plan includes an objective to “promote the development of an efficient transportation system and land use patterns that foster strong live-work relationships and encourage an enhanced public transit modal share.” It encourages “higher density mixed use of development along major streets to make transit a more practical choice for commuters” and “an integrated land use and transportation plan that provides a balanced transportation system giving priority to public transit and pedestrians and creating complete communities (compact, transit-oriented, and pedestrian-friendly with a mix of uses and a variety of housing choices, employment, and supporting services and facilities)”. They have a policy supporting transit-supportive nodes (3.2.2, 4.4.4.20), mixed-use, higher-density areas with good road and transit facilities), transit-oriented infill (3.2.5) along corridors, and higher density development at GO Transit stations (4.4.4.28).

The Province of Ontario introduced the Places to Grow Act in 2005; the act identifies 25 downtown areas as urban growth centres, setting minimum density targets to encourage revitalization. However, without planning for rental and affordable housing, this initiative will only encourage high-priced condo development in these areas.

While there is undoubtedly still work to be done, as policy does not always translate into practice, this short examination of planning documents shows that there is some effort to link housing and transportation in planning more sustainable cities.

A major governance change may significantly affect transportation decision-making in the Toronto region. Metrolinx, the Greater Toronto Transportation Authority formed in 2006, will absorb GO Transit, which operates regional transit services. As both are provincial bodies, they can be created, dissolved, or merged by the Province of Ontario. Transportation Minister Jim Bradley introduced the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area Transit Implementation Act on March 30, 2009 amid concerns that the new Metrolinx board will not incorporate municipal mayors. In fact the legislation expressly forbids a municipal employee from sitting on the board, which is made up of fifteen high-level business people, only five of whom have any transit planning experience. A similar process took place in the Vancouver region in 2007 when Provincial Transportation Minister Kevin Falcon removed municipal delegates from the TransLink board, replacing them with his own hand-picked delegates.

Steve Munro, a vocal supporter of the transit in the Toronto region, voiced his discontent with the Ontario government’s decision. Munro argues that although the new legislation was introduced to push infrastructure through and override petty squabbles between municipalities, in reality the higher levels of government were usually at fault for failing to fund transportation initiatives in the region. This has resulted in years of inertia rather than good, solid investment and planning of transportation projects.

When was the last time Toronto copied Vancouver? The new Metrolinx board shares many similarities with the new TransLink board formed in November 2007, whose nine members boast only two with vague transit planning experience. Lower Mainland citizens were outraged when the board’s first action was to vote themselves a pay raise in February 2008. While the former board, composed of municipal employees, were paid $200 per meeting, and met once a month, the new board gets $1200 per meeting and hefty retainers between $25,000 and $100,000. Like the former board of elected municipal politicians, the new appointed board can raise property taxes, change taxation classifications, accumulate property and run its own police force. The new board makes most of its decisions in private and holds quarterly consultations with the mayors’ council: at the first of these meetings, several mayors stormed out after being unable have their opinions heard. Under Bill 43, the board is allowed to decide when and where to meet.

In Toronto, the new legislation proposes that the Metrolinx board meets in public:

  • On any occasion it determines
  • When the board is adoping or amending a regional transportation plan
  • When the board is considering approval of an investment strategy
  • When the corporation’s annual report is presented
  • When the corporation is considering a by-law to change the fares charged on its system

The board is not required to discuss capital planning or projects, the Metrolinx budget, or the investment strategy. It is unclear whether Metrolinx will take over ownership of municipal transportation infrastructure such as the subway; naturally any change in governance raises issues of local versus regional importance. This is rather important; we see the results of this fragmentation in Vancouver, where TransLink still hasn’t recovered from the 1998 split of BC Transit into Coast Mountain Bus Company, which does detailed route planing and operates buses, TransLink, which does comprehensive planning. The British Columbia Rapid Transit Company operates the SkyTrain, while the new Canada Line will be operated by InTransit BC.

An interesting note is that in both cases, the province claimed it was making the change in order to streamline decision-making in the region. Those of us with even a hint of planning experience can understand the frustrations of political agendas entering the decision making process: witness the construction of the Expo Skytrain Line in Vancouver for Expo 86 and its alignment through NDP ridings. However, in the Vancouver region, Bill 43 was introduced in part to expedite provincial will, ensuring that the region had less say in the decisions; the Canada Line had been voted down by the old TransLink Board three times. TransLink argued it could have more of an impact on transit in the region by increasing bus frequency and introducing more rapid bus services; the Province favoured the LRT. Some argue that TransLink was given a choice: accept the LRT or face funding shortfalls for transit in the region. Shortly afterward, Bill 43 was introduced to effectively eliminate regional voices. Now that’s streamlined!

I would urge Toronto transit advocates and municipal transportation planners to keep on top of the Province of Ontario’s decision. While the TTC still remains under municipal control, the Province plays a major role in infrastructure decisionmaking and funding. Compiling an “expert” board made up of the provincial minister’s investment buddies, none of whom take or advocate transit, is like asking a bunch of PC users to design Mac software. They just don’t have the knowledge to make good decisions. Just ask Vancouver transit users.