Anne Golden, Part 1—The Transportation Challenge

[EDITOR’S NOTE: On January 28, 2014, Anne Golden spoke at  SFU Vancouver  as part of the Rethinking Transportation: New Voices, New Ideas series. Her insightful talk was called  Breaking the Political Gridlock to Address the Transportation Challenge: Lessons Learned from the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area and we are happy to give our an edited transcription of her full presentation, attained via Gordon Price. This is the first of a three part series.]

Introduction

I am pleased to be here to talk about the review undertaken by Ontario’s Provincial Advisory Panel on transit funding late last year. While urban transport issues in Metro Vancouver and Greater Toronto differ in a number of important ways, there are enough similar challenges that I believe you will find our experience interesting and relevant.

Here’s the starting point: the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA) of more than 6 million is expected to grow by 2.5 million people over the next two decades. That means one million more cars on our roads. And it means we have reached a tipping point in congestion on roads, and crowding on transit.

Because we have neglected transport infrastructure for so long, the impending influx of people and cars makes for an intolerable situation. But while there is consensus on the urgency for action, there is no agreement on how we pay for it.

I recall when the Greater Vancouver Regional District (GVRD) was in the process of creating TransLink back in the mid-90s. In 1996, I was chairing the Task Force on the future of the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) and wrestling with similar issues. My Task Force argued that we needed a strategic and integrated approach to city-building (given that the total population was expected to reach 6 million residents by 2021 – and we’ve exceeded that already!).

I came to Vancouver to study your property tax assessment system, and met with Ken Cameron, a colleague when he was in Ontario, to catch up on the GVRD’s Livable Region Strategic Plan. So at about the same time that you created TransLink in 1998, I was calling for a new regional government in the GTA that would make possible coordinated decision-making on regional matters including, regional planning and infrastructure development, including transportation.

In fact, Metro Vancouver has led the way: first, by creating the region-wide GVRD, then with your Livable Region Plan, followed by the creation of TransLink, and with your land-use policies. While in Toronto we have continued to sprawl, you preserved your agricultural land and developed policies on intensification, which are much more ambitious than anything we have dared to do. (I understand that your target is for 70% of new development to take place in compact urban form; our target is just 40%.)

And here I am, eighteen years later, talking about integrating land-use and transportation planning for a metropolitan region – in my case, without the benefit of a region-wide government or body – and how to make that happen.

So as Yogi Berra said, in some ways “it’s déjà vu all over again”.

The Transit Panel’s Terms of Reference said that our mandate was to review the Metrolinx Investment Strategy and give the Province our advice on funding tools. But the real motive was undoubtedly to try to break the political gridlock. After all, there had been several reports on revenue tools: Toronto Region Board of Trade, City of Toronto staff report, Metrolinx and now my Panel.

I propose this evening to describe the context for our report, present our key recommendations, and talk about lessons learned. There were three, which I will mention briefly now, so as not to keep you in suspense – but elaborate on later.

Role of the Media

First, the role of the media: I found the media reaction to our report somewhat frustrating. The broadcast media the night we released our report, was all about “oh my god, they’re going to raise gas taxes”, while the print press editorials and columns were mostly laudatory. Our report was described as “breaking new ground”, “doable”, and “practical”.

Trust

Second is trust. When trust is broken between the government and the governed, it’s almost impossible to generate support for public policy changes even when the proposals are right.

Governance

Third is governance: There is no easy answer with respect to transportation governance, no template that we could use as a model. I have followed your experience with TransLink governance, and know that you too have struggled with the challenge of creating an ideal system that achieves effectiveness and efficiency across a region comprising several municipalities and at the same time adheres to the principles of responsiveness and accountability. This is a challenge that besets all metropolitan regions. More on this later.

Making the Move: Choices and Consequences

When Premier Wynne and Minister Glen Murray asked me to lead a panel to advise the Government on how transit in the GTHA should be funded, my reaction was both hesitant and excited:

  • The timing was very tight – a fast turnaround was needed to allow the Government to meet its 2014 Budget timeline.
  • The Panel, already chosen, was very big: Could 13 individuals with diverse views and backgrounds come to agreement on such a contentious issue in 12 weeks?
  • The political context was daunting. We had a minority government at Queen’s Park. And we had a Mayor at City Hall doing his best to mislead the public on transit (and other) matters. No doubt, you have heard of him.

But I knew I had to accept. Transit infrastructure is an issue I have cared about deeply for two decades or more: it was highlighted in my report on the future of the GTA back in 1996; it was a major theme in my work on cities at The Conference Board of Canada; and it is one of the cornerstones for success of city-regions in the course I teach at Ryerson.

When the Premier announced the Panel, the initial reaction from the media and the public was understandably cynical. Some believed the government was just postponing an unpopular decision on revenue tools. A transit fracas on a proposed new line in Scarborough was dominating the news, with decisions being made apparently “unimpaired by information.”  This just confirmed the public’s distrust in how transit decisions are made.

However, the Panel was not cynical; we were determined to figure out the best way to generate the needed funds to create the regional network so urgently needed in the GTHA. We would not duplicate the work that Metrolinx – our regional transit agency – had done; we would build on its research and input from extensive consultations. We were committed to coming up with a viable plan.

And I believe we have done so. Producing a consensus report that had the unanimous support of all 13 Panel members – representing all major stakeholder groups, from across the political spectrum — has been a gratifying and heartening experience. Our hope is that this unanimity of support will give heart to the Government to act on our recommendations in the upcoming budget.

Our plan is simple and it works: It starts with a few revenue tools to create a reliable revenue stream that levers a reasonable amount of debt that unlocks the billions of dollars needed to build the highest priority “Next Wave” projects within a decade.

Our revenue plan calls for a fair and balanced contribution from all stakeholders, without asking too much of any one group.

Before going into the details of the revenue strategy, a word about how our thinking evolved.

Framing the Issues

We began with three to four weeks of intense orientation in order to identify the key issues and areas for further research; we then met with dozens of stakeholder groups and organized public meetings. We had to focus the discussion and move beyond the myths and distortions that were making the public debate so irrational. Without a clear fact base, a mature conversation would not be possible.

That’s why our first paper laid out what we called the Hard Truths about Transit in the Toronto Region:

  1. Subways are not the only good form of transit. What matters is matching the right transit mode and technology to the proposed route to avoid wasting scarce capital, reducing funds for other projects, and creating burdensome debt.
  2. Transit does not automatically drive development. To be successful and affordable, transit routes must connect with current and anticipated employment.
  3. The cost of building the transit is not the main expense. Lifecycle operating, maintenance, and financing costs are a major portion of the total cost of transit and must be included in the analysis leading to decisions. I am proud of the chart we produced, showing publicly for the first time the true cost of transit construction.
  4. Transit riders are not the only beneficiaries of new transit infrastructure. Everyone benefits – economically, socially and environmentally – from new transit infrastructure.
  5. Transit expansion in the region is not at a standstill. There is $16 billion worth of transit construction now in progress throughout the GTHA (versus public perception of nothing happening).
  6. We can’t pay for the region-wide transit we need by cutting waste in government alone. New dedicated revenue sources are required.

There is no evidence that the magnitude of funds needed to build, operate, and maintain a transit network capable of serving a future region of more than 10 million people can be found by simply cutting waste. The “gravy train” myth perpetuated by our mayor is often repeated, but these are the facts:

  • Ontario has the lowest spending per capita of all provincial governments.
  • Spending has already been reined in significantly. Growth in program spending has been held to less than one per cent over the last two years.
  • Ontario is committed to eliminating the deficit by 2017-18.
  • Even if the Government chose to sell off land or cut a program, this would not create the ongoing revenue stream required to permit additional borrowing.

Premier Dalton McGuinty had asked Don Drummond, the TD Bank’s former chief economist, to find ways to cut spending and improve government efficiency. Even Don could not find, after almost a full year, efficiency measures sufficient to both reduce the deficit and fund transit expansion. Indeed, the Drummond Commission report actually called for “new revenue sources for future transportation capital needs.”

Following publication of the Hard Truths paper, the Panel began to gain some traction, with the tone of the media coverage becoming somewhat more respectful.

The Panel found that we could not separate the matter of how to pay for new transit from the process and criteria for selecting the projects themselves. The challenge was how to take account of new research – for instance on employment patterns and the critical importance of linking public transit to jobs, current and future – without undermining confidence in The Big Move.

We resolved this challenge with seven criteria to prioritize Next Wave projects, which had not yet been done. These criteria may affect the order of what gets built, and the nature of the project analysis by Metrolinx on forthcoming initiatives.

Among these criteria are: that transit investments must help ease congestion (this would affect the Yonge Street extension timing and prioritizes the relief line); they must add up to a region-wide network (affecting relief line planning, now underway); they must align with major employment centres, current and future; they must be built on a practical time-line and account for all costs. The last point led to our decision to recommend two or more phases for the Next Wave.

Stay tuned for parts 2 and 3. You can also watch a video of the entire presentation.

***

About Anne Golden

Anne GoldenAnne Golden, PhD, CM, has been president and chief executive officer of The Conference Board of Canada since October 2001. Previous to that, Dr. Golden served as president of the United Way of Greater Toronto for 14 years.

She gained national recognition for her role in the public policy arena through chairing two influential task forces: one in 1996 for the provincial government on the future of the Toronto area, and another in 1998 for the City of Toronto and the federal government on homelessness.

Also noteworthy is her work on The Canada Project, the largest public policy project undertaken by The Conference Board of Canada, for which she co-authored Volume III: Mission Possible: Successful Canadian Cities.

One comment

  1. For those who have been attending the many lectures and events in the last year relating to transit funding, I want to focus on two key points:

    1) “…create a reliable revenue stream that levers a reasonable amount of debt that unlocks the billions of dollars needed to build the highest priority…” To date, I have only heard funding options discussed in terms of funding the entire cost of key projects. In my mind, this is a game changer.

    2)”We can’t pay for the region-wide transit we need by cutting waste in government alone. New dedicated revenue sources are required.” This is the number 1 piece of misinformation that is passed on as fact relating to the transit funding debate. Never let this comment go by. Call out people on this fact. Have you read the annual audit reports of translink? Or the performance audits? Those who disseminate this nonsense go straight to knee-jerk reaction. Because of this deluded belief, translink is performing a “service optimizing” program (a euphemism for cutting service) based on the third(!) performance review. As one of the mayors pointed out, moving service from low revenue routes to high revenue does not provide better overall service. The long-term cost of this decision remains to be seen. It begs the question, what is translinks purpose again? So to recap:
    (1) We have another performance review of Translink because people based on gut-feelings and not facts think it is wasteful.
    (2) Based on these reports Transink cuts suburban service to switch service to the well-served Burrard peninsula.
    (3) From this, those who have lost convenient (and I am being very generous here) service will switch to a car.
    eg. What was the point of the Evergreen line when existing residents in the Tri-cities can’t get to it with out driving? I pretty sure they don’t all live walking distance from the stations. Or,
    Check out Burke Mountain a Transit Oriented Community with no bus service(!) -may be getting some soon?

    The message is clear. Stop bashing the management of Translink (insert your transit provider) unless there are facts to back up your claim.

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