LORINC: Ontario NDP have missed the train

Here’s a question: Why is Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath totally missing in action when it comes to transit?

Think about it: when was the last time you saw the populist progressive from Hamilton talking about the TTC, Metrolinx and the GTA’s $6 billion gridlock crisis?

(Awkward pause.)

I know the last time I saw Tim Hudak, Niagara’s smooth-cheeked son, taking on this whale of a topic: It was last Tuesday, on the cat walk across from City Hall, where he was flanked by two senior critics and a gaggle of Toronto councillors, all revved up to talk up his party’s new platform piece about transit. Unlike Mayor Rob Ford, he was also prepared to field tough questions from the media.

Hudak, for those who missed the presser, is proposing to upload the TTC’s rail-based operations and turn Metrolinx into a more muscular organization with additional power to drive regional transit planning. He wants to fold in the GTHA’s big highways, consolidate capital planning, and talk about new subways.

The proposal has some merits and some problems. In terms of the former, there are many other city-regions that practice regional transit/transportation planning in recognition of the fact the municipal boundaries are meaningless. What Hudak has suggested, structurally, bears some resemblance to Greater Vancouver’s Translink, the brainchild of one Mike Harcourt, an NDP premier.

On the con side, Hudak has said nothing of substance about money, and seems to be threatening to re-kindle the subway-vs-LRT battle, although his party’s policy paper contains several weasel words that would suggest he might not.

But here’s my point: Hudak has shown up and seems keen to play ball. He’s put a handful of policy ideas out there well ahead of a vote, and has done so in a timely way, given the debate about revenue tools.

And for all that, he deserves credit.

After all, if the Tories want to put themselves in contention in Toronto and the 905 in the next election, they’d better have something relevant to say about the region’s top-of-mind concern.

One would think that Horwath also wants to be competitive on this issue, especially given the NDP’s existing Toronto base and their recent win in Kitchener.

But is there an NDP policy paper on GTA gridlock? No.

Anything on how to pay for Metrolinx’s Big Move? No.

A statement of intent about the province’s role in financing ongoing capital requirements of large transit agencies like the TTC?

Well, you get the picture.

In the last election, the NDP platform called for freezing TTC fares (which put them, oddly, in the same policy space as our chief magistrate). And they talked a bit about splitting the TTC’s operating shortfall.

Since then, Horwath has devoted no small amount of time and political attention to the fate of Ontario’s northern railways. But congestion in the GTA? She doesn’t go there.

The NDP’s GTA and environment critic Jonah Schein (Davenport) gamely defends his party’s record, noting that his own attempts to promote a clean train solution for the air-rail link died on the order paper when the Liberals prorogued the legislature. He dismisses Hudak’s Metrolinx plan (“hard to take seriously”) and say the revenue tools required to pay for transit expansion in the GTHA have to be equitable. On the Downtown Relief Line: “We need to listen to the TTC.”

As for the NDP’s own vision for Metrolinx, regional transit and revenue tools, it all appears to be a work in progress. “We will be having a consultation to get buy-in around how we’re going to do this,” states Schein. But he doesn’t say when.

It’s tough not to wonder whether Horwath has decided to blow off this file and all the votes that go with it. Maybe the NDP wants only to be the party of the public sector unions and the remote hinterland, content to leave the messy business of urban affairs to the Tories.

That would be a shame. If the Ontario NDP aspires to follow its federal brethren and present themselves as a viable governing alternative, they’ve got to come forward with policies that address the province’s largest urban region.

And that means talking (seriously) about transit.

photo by David Sherrit

26 comments

  1. I have many frustrations with the provincial NDP and the transit file sits on the top of that list. Federally, you have Olivia Chow pushing for a National Public Transit Strategy and provincially, I can’t even remember the last time that the NDP discussed transit (Horwath or Hampton) and a four-year transit freeze doesn’t count.

    I voted Green in the last provincial and am tempted to vote Green again in the next election because Horwath has shown nothing when it comes to transit.

  2. NDP talks about freezing transit fares.  However, to meaningfully talk about freezing transit fares, you need to discuss where the additional subsidy will come from or what services will be cut.

  3. Hey, I think YOU may have missed the train a little on what Schein’s been up to, in terms of transit and in his case, it’s not just an election ploy … Schein’s argument in favour of electrifying the ARL notes the potential for integrating this line into the new Downtown Relief Line (or whatever it’s to be called) everyone’s talking about. As I understand it, his point is that electrification is a necessary prerequisite to incorporating GO lines into a regional transit plan because electric trains are quicker, cheaper to operate and can stop and start more efficiently. His Private Member’s Bill offers a pragmatic solution to a specific problem. But by extension, it obviously provides a model for integrating other GO lines into a broader regional transit plan. Maybe this is a more effective way to start skinning the GTHA transit cat than big fancy policy announcements that are doomed to failure when they hit a divided legislature or when a PPP can’t be found to finance them.
    And, in case you hadn’t noticed, Olivia Chow’s bill for a National Transit Strategy, coming up for second reading (?), calls on all three levels of gov’t to combat gridlock by coughing up funds for regional transit planning.
    The discussion about revenue tools is, as you well know, ubiquitous and ongoing, so imho Schein is right to be consulting and listening instead of barking out political manifestos. 
    Things get done outside of fancy pressers, my friend.  

  4. John I think you are being a bit harsh here. Why do you think the NDP picked up seats in Toronto, because of their stand on APL Electrification. I have seen the NDP leader stand in my riding and demand a national transportation policy among other things.

    Hudak basically showed how little he understands the issues and capped it all off with “if money is available”. This is the guy who hangs with the Fordites who want to sell off public transit.

    There is a difference between real transit talk and rhetorical election style transit talk.You failed to ask the big question, does anybody actually believe Hudak anymore?

  5. @Mary and ScottD — I am well aware of efforts by Jonah Schein and Andrew Cash to draw attention to the electrification issue, and also Olivia Chow’s advocacy of a national transit strategy. But let’s not fool ourselves into believing that demonstrations and no-hope private member’s bills are an adequate substitute for a party policy. The Ontario NDP doesn’t have one, and this despite the party’s general support of transit, emission reductions, and so on. So let’s ask, why no? Let’s ask why they are ceding the playing field to the Tories. There will be a general election in Ontario within a year, one in which the Liberals will almost surely see the kind of collapse its federal cousins experienced. So if Horwath and the NDP want to present a viable alternative, they have to say what they’d do in power. The clock is ticking…

  6. The NDP’s ARL electrification advocacy is laudable, but anyone can see that it’s coming from politically-opportunistic ward-heeling to a powerful NIMBY group rather than a fundamental commitment to public transit.

    If they were serious about electrification, Schein and the NDP would say where they’d find the hundreds of millions of dollars that are needed to pay for it. They had a chance to put that kind of a spending commitment in their last platform and didn’t. They had a chance to get money set aside for electrification when they negotiated with McGuinty on the budget in the spring and didn’t. And they’d be pushing for electrification where it’s needed most, along the Lake shore, rather than just through their own ridings.

    The days where the NDP were a principled party of the environment are gone. This current batch of New Democrats are more interested in pandering to the electorate by promising lower gas prices and lower hydro bills, and never mind the environmental consequences. Watch them shoot down any talk of road tolls or gas taxes that might actually get us electric trains because it wouldn’t play well with the “kitchen table” voters they’re so desperate for.

  7. Lorinc has a point but I think the rational is quite obvious. Horvath thinks she already has Toronto locked up and is simply putting her efforts elsewhere. Hudak on the other hand knows that if he wants to get a majority he has to win more GTA seats and there is no reason to doubt his sincerity to follow through on the Transit file to get a long term long term foothold in the GTA. The real problem about all the conjecture is that the Liberals are still not being honest about the huge financial hole Provincial finances are in and there will be less money for everything until at least 2017. So let’s start planning the DRL line to start in 2019 but don’t expect much before than what we’ve got before them. 

  8. I agree, as a Ontario New Democrat I would like to see the party come out with a bold plan to finance and build the backlog of public transit needed across the GTHA. While I disagree with the policies I have been pleased to see Mr. Hudak begin to present alternatives, especially given that an election will likely come sooner rather than later. 

  9. Let’s not forget about Gilles Bisson, the NDP’s transportation critic. Bisson does not use local transit to get around his ward of Timmins-James Bay, which is larger in area than all wards in southern Ontario combined. A licensed pilot, Bisson flies his own aircraft when visiting constituents in his enormous riding. When Bisson commutes to Toronto by air, he’s in his own cockpit. 

    What’s on the transportation critic’s mind? Not transit! It’s Pump Shock. “Gas price regulation is all about stopping gas price volatility, eliminating opportunistic price gouging and delivering fair, stable and predictable fuel prices and lower gas prices over the long haul. Ontario motorists are suffering from gas price hangover. They wake up in the morning with the car running on empty and gas prices are 10 cents higher than they were at bedtime.”

    Ya, and while we’re at, we can regulate the price of aviation fuel, too. As a Torontonian who believes in sustainable transportation, I do not think that Bisson is looking after my interests.

  10. “But let’s not fool ourselves into believing that demonstrations and no-hope private member’s bills are an adequate substitute for a party policy.”

    Wait, so you’re actually saying that words speak louder than actions?

    “The Ontario NDP doesn’t have [a policy on transit]”

    It’s right on Page 14…

    http://www.scribd.com/fullscreen/58700585?access_key=key-cfy680813bl9qe6flnu

    Freeze fares, fund investments in transit expansion.

    “Not as in-depth as I want” is a far cry from “doesn’t exist”.  One of those is intellectually dishonest.

  11. @Peter. I’m sorry but a paragraph isn’t a policy. “We will also invest in new transit projects and upgrades for public transit systems,” accord to the document you’ve referenced. But what does this mean? How will they raise the funds? Does the ONDP support The Big Move? Would it reinstate political accountability for Metrolinx? Does it even believe Metrolinx is necessary? Where does the party stand on the need for revenue tools? I’m not even going to get into the problem of forcing a fare hike freeze on an ostensibly independent tier of (local) government. These aren’t policies, they’re slogans.  

  12. Peter —
    You have proven Lorinc correct. Looking at your link to the policy there is words that do say “Freeze fares, fund investments in transit expansion,”

    But that is not *policy* — that’s a *platform.*

    First, freezing fares is a horrible idea. What happens when gas spikes to $2 a litre? Where can the TTC make that money up? What happens when major infrastructure fails and you need to repair it? Those come out of fares (not all, but in part).

    I’ve voted for the NDP a few times but most recently abandoned the provincial party for their lack of priorities when it comes to urban centres, especially on the transit file. They have done well advocating for electric trains on the ARL, which is commendable. But that, again, is not policy. That’s responding to the needs of residents. 

    The GTA(H) is in a congestion hell and they have zero plans — no policy, no platform even — that demonstrates ANY commitment to deal with it. If Horwath comes out in support of LRT or the DRL I would be shocked. 

    I think Cash and Shein and Tabuns and Prue and other east ender NDP MPPs would love to get on the transit funding bandwagon but have their voices tied by a leader who only understands the word “pander” and knows nothing of the word “nuance.”

  13. I think John Lorinc is helpful because he provides an overview of the policies of both opposition parties.  Neither party really addresses the problem of the capital backlog for transit.  The Liberals have gone the furthest but have stopped short so far (I guess we will see what happens when Metrolinx brings down the costs for the rest of the expansion next year).

    I think the biggest problem is that many people in the GTA feel overtaxed so much  – because politicians like Hudak and Ford are telling them so – that they are unwittingly willing to let the GTA and region slowly strangle on a car based system of transportation that could ultimately lead to the overall decline of the Toronto Region as a major economic centre.  It is odd that we have convinced ourselves that we can’t afford what we absolutely need.

    It’s obvious that many people still believe that there is significant “gravy” out there which can be used to pay for the up to $50 billion costs over 20 or 30 years. This in spite of the current Mayor’s own accountants showing that such large sums do not exist – without major cuts to other programs.

    The challenge I believe will be to find a method to convince these “gravy” people that funding transit expansion is essential to our own economy, health and social stability and that this is one of several big issues that must become (start dream music) apolitical.

  14. Andrea has made huge advances since she took over. It was just a year ago since she almost doubled the parties seat count, which brought fresh new talented MPPS like Schein,Fife, Singh.Now is the time with Libs in crisis for the ONDP to move transit in Ontario forward. Libs cant be trusted with so many promises broken over the last 9yrs. Now is the time for Andrea to separate herself from the rest and pt forward the necessary plan to invest in Ontario’s transit future . 

  15. @John: Look at all these releases having nothing to do with transit: http://ondpcaucus.com/en/transit/

    I also noticed that you answered my second question, but not my first: Are you saying that words speak louder than actions?

    @Laura: Freezing transit fares is a horrible idea?  Seriously?  Heaven forbid we keep transit accessible and affordable for everyone.  Perhaps you meant to say, “freezing transit fares and funding is a horrible idea.”  That would make sense, but no one is proposing that.  The NDP policy was to upload half the cost of transit to the province, in exchange for a fare freeze.  Municipalities could *double* transit at no extra expense, while keeping transit accessible.  Anything beyond that could still be paid for through property taxes, like everything else.

    You seem to expect the unreasonable from provincial politicians.  Your concerns are municipal issues.  No party should think that their wisdom is better than the research of public bureaucrats.  The NDP wants to help the municipalities with these issues, but it’s not the province’s place to dictate choices that municipal councilors were elected to make on the advice of staff, who are responsible for making recommendations based on empirical data.

  16. @Peter The NDP know the rules of the game: They have to put forward a platform (words) that allows voters to make a decision about how they will govern. I applaud Schein/Cash’s efforts (action) on electrification. But the latter is not a substitute for the former. 

  17. The whole issue of fare freezes and transit funding is more complex that what the NDP proposed in their policy. In round numbers, the TTC operating subsidy is running at about $400 million for the main part of the system, and an additional $100m for WheelTrans. Most of this comes from the city except for roughly $90m of provincial gas tax revenue that is used for operating costs (the remaining roughly $70m goes to capital).

    Inflationary increases in costs add, say, 3% and a further 3% is required just to keep up with growing demand for transit services. On a cost base of $1.5-billion for the regular system, that’s an annual increase of $90m just to stand still. In fact, the increases have not been at that level with the result that the system is slowly losing capacity relative to demand.

    If the entire increase is borne from subsidies, governments look at this only relative to what they are paying, and a $90m boost on top of a $400m base is enormous. If it’s all taken from the farebox where the current revenue is about $1b, it would still mean a considerable fare hike, somewhere around 20 cents. What we wind up with is a saw-off between some increases on both accounts: subsidy next year will handle inflationary pressures, while fares and increased revenue from new riders will pay for service adds.

    If you say “freeze the fares”, you cut off that source of revenue growth, but I have yet to hear the NDP commit to paying *not* half of whatever the subsidy is today, but half of what it will become as those 6% annual bumps in costs grow.

    The argument that with the province taking “half” there would be more left for the city to spend on transit presumes that the city would actually continue to spend at, say, 75% of the current level. If the province is going to match this, then they would actually have to commit to paying 75% of the current subsidy so that the grand total came out as half of the new, higher funding (effectively 150% of what it is today). Do you honestly think that Queen’s Park will start handing out $300m to the TTC? Would they leave the gas tax revenue in place on top of this, or fold it in effectively lowering their marginal cost. This new level of funding would also have to be matched around the province.

    I have not even started to talk about capital costs.

    The NDP platform was simplistic because it did not look in detail at the implications of a fare freeze and the cost pressures transit actually faces, especially in terms of medium term growth on a frozen cost base.

  18. Oh my, a Private Member’s Bill has a communicative effect beyond whether or not it becomes law. Among other things, it signals to the MPP’s constituents that he/she is listening to them; it is useful as a tool for drumming up support for its cause from other legislators; and, it is often a token of party policy. Schein’s PMB, e.g., has already made for some uncomfortable moments for Liberal MPPs, like Laura Albanese, whose constituents are starting to notice are MIA on the whole clean train thing.

    And if you’re really asking when the last time I saw Andrea Horwath talking transit was, and it’s not just a rhetorical ploy to big up Mr Smoothcheeks (it’s his eyes I notice first), then I’ll tell you. It was at a Clean Trains community event where Ms Horwath was surrounded by 3 (or 4?) other MPPs and 3 (or 4?) MPs as well as several city councillors. A few hundred constituents – me among them – were in attendance. Where were you? Andrea was speaking forcefully in favour of electrification.

    Electrification is THE BIG ASK in THE BIG MOVE, is it not? And Metrolinx itself has proposed the ARL as the place to start.

    @ ROB Metrolinx would love to get moving on electrification of the Lakeshore line, and according to their report on electrification, electrifying the ARL should be Phase 1 of this project. In other words, electrifying the ARL will kickstart the Lakeshore project. You want the Lakeshore electrified? Hop on the ARL bandwagon, we’re trying to get the party started. 

    At this event, Andrea was flanked by MP Olivia Chow who spoke about her National Transit Strategy (NTS) Bill that is meant to make funds available from all three levels government for transportation infrastructure. She specifically addressed the underinvestment in raillines, esp with regard to electrification. The Toronto Board of Trade whose $6 billion gridlock figure John refers to has called for the creation of just such an NTS as a place to start with the question of revenue sources. But, the BoT notes, and we all know, that other revenue streams are also necessary. There’s a lot of chitter chatter these days about where to find the cash for the Big Move and it would be incredibly helpful @John, to those of us who read Spacing for its ultra-detailed transit geek talk rather than its punditry (there are lots of other rags doing the pundit thing), if you would sift through some of that chitter chatter and help us make sense of it instead of talking up the Hudak/Ford coalition. (E.g., props to Mr Munro above!)

    I guess I’m just trying to say that I think the ONDP is on the right track :), but I’ll give you this, they need to write it down, so John can read it and dissect the f out of it for us. But, this isn’t just a contest in who can write faster is it?     

  19. The NDP’s campaign commitment to restoring 50/50 funding for transit is huge. Whatever the final formula (thanks Mr. Munro), the commitment to municipal transit is real and would result in an actual mandate on transit from electors. It is the only party doing that. Jonah Schein has been organizing non-stop for the ARL electrification (see Mary McCann above). He was bringing the question of transit funding to the provincial legislature when it was looking like the Liberals were trying to come out smelling like roses during the subway/streetcar debate at City Hall. The Conservatives were totally quiet. 
     
    Giving credit to Hudak for showing up is nonsense. Hudak is way late and more than a buck short. He has no credibility on the transit file. He is trying to get the Ford brothers off the sidelines for the next election. The NDP is taking the time to organize on the ground and building it up as an election issue. Freezing fares is key to getting popular support for funding. Hudak is parroting the ‘great cities build subways’ mantra while ignoring what transit experts have to say and not committing a dollar.

    The NDP does things differently from the Conservatives. They are also fighting with few resources to get credit for their investment in the transit file. Meanwhile you are giving Hudak props for coming up with a weaselly plan. Huh?

  20. I think people like Andrew are really missing the point here: Advocating for the elecrification of the ARL is noble but is not a transit policy. Its a small piece of the total transit issue in the GTA.

    The 50/50 funding is a good idea but has not been hashed out in any way shape or form. I suspect many NDP supporters would rail against Hudak if all he said was “I promise to build subways” and not provide any financial planning of it.

    Lastly, you can give Hudak credit without agreeing with his policies. He’s been very willing to engage in the debate about Toronto transit while the NDP have remained silent. I personally do not agree with Hudak’s position but he is occupying the intellectual room that Horwath and the NDP should be occupying.

  21. @ Matthew “noble”? “a small piece”? Pardon? Spoken like a true downtowner. (Don’t worry I sound like that too.) 
    The Big Move is concerned with the larger GTHA, where gridlock is really dragging down Ontario’s manufacturing base.This is arguably the most appropriate policy realm for PROVINCIAL MPPs to be operating in. Electrification is essentially a precondition for many of the Big Move’s innovative ideas about how to improve GO service and link it more efficiently to Toronto transit. Plus, as city councilllors have argued, adding stops to electrified GO lines may offer some relief to Toronto’s overcrowded subways. (Oh, and hey electric trains are cheaper to operate and better for the environment!) I don’t get how that is not policy, tho’ I agree the ONDP need to work on the revenue side, but then so do the Cons you guys seem to love so much :). 
     

  22. @Mary — what you put in your last comment is just the sort of high level policy elaboration that should go into a party position document. Link electrification to the rest of it — the network, the dollars, the goal, the quality-of-life improvements. Then you’ve got a full meal instead of finger food…. 😉
     

  23. And here I thought that it was our petrol dollar and foreign mercantilism that was hurting our manufacturing base.

  24. I live in Davenport so Schein and Cash are my local MPP and MP respectively. I am glad the provincial and federal NDP have taken these seats. That said, these two officials seem to be doing little else than advocating for electrification, which while an important issue is not the sole concern in the riding. Now, that may be an improvement over the deadwood that used to hold these positions. But just barely.

  25. @SAMG Well, although the electrification issue has been very visible, not everything these councillors do corresponds with a dedicated lawn sign to promote your awareness of it. Have you every visited either of their constituency offices? They both have dedicated significant resources to helping their residents tackle the day-to-day challenges of navigating government services. I think that’s pretty laudable, and a change of pace from the last councillors.

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