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So You Want to Be Toronto's Mayor? What's Your Transit Plan?

06/17/2014 05:06 EDT | Updated 08/17/2014 05:59 EDT
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When it comes to mayoral hopefuls in Toronto, there is good news and bad news. The good news is the leading four contenders look and sound significantly better than incumbent Rob Ford does. The bad news is they still do not exude the visionary dynamism needed for the city of 2.5 million.

The four leading candidates -- Olivia Chow, David Soknacki, Karen Stintz, and John Tory -- shared their respective mobility visions for the gridlocked city in a debate organized by Transport Futures, Monday. As the candidates outlined their plans, one finding was obvious: they had only partial solutions and pet projects for Toronto's mobility troubles.

The leading candidates were unanimous in realizing that mobility was the number one issue for the city. However, they could not agree on what to do about it. The continuous bickering over the future of transit expansion in Scarborough, and the lack of agreement on how to finance transit expansion forebodes future spark-laden, action-packed debates. It also exposes the unfamiliarity of the four leading contenders with the transport fundamentals.

The candidates do agree on certain matters. For instance, the four candidates rejected the idea of tearing down the eastern part of the Gardiner Expressway. They also agreed not to reintroduce the vehicle registration tax.

However, the future of transit expansion in Scarborough revealed two distinct positions. Stintz and Tory sounded too keen to please the newly elected Ontario Liberals and supported Glen Murray's unsubstantiated subway plans for Scarborough. Neither Stintz nor Tory explained how a subway line with fewer stops would serve more riders than the LRT line with more frequent stops. With the Liberals back in the provincial saddle, Stintz and Tory appeared ready to hitch their wagons to the Liberal's transit caravan at the cost of building a well-planned and integrated transit system for the region.

Chow and Soknacki favour the LRT for Scarborough. They would rather rely on experts' opinion that has favoured LRT over subways for Scarborough.

Chow showed sound judgement when she pushed for increasing transit capacity by introducing more buses in the system. Unlike other politicians, who by default gravitate to rail-based solutions, Chow reflects mature thinking by favouring buses. John. F. Kain, one of the most respected transport economists and an author, explained decades earlier how buses were an integral and the most important component of the transit system. It is, therefore, no surprise that most transit trips in Toronto are made by buses. Thus increasing transit capacity using buses, as Ms. Chow suggests, makes perfect sense.

I have three major concerns about Stintz's platform. First, she wants to create another bureaucracy to amalgamate the TTC, Toronto Transportation Services, Toronto Parking Enforcement and the Taxi and Licensing and Standards unit. Given that Toronto's mobility challenges extend beyond the 250 square miles that the mayor would control it, the new agency would do precious little for regional coordination. Not to mention, the legal and other challenges that will emerge from the unnecessary shake-up of existing agencies. Furthermore, no studies exist to suggest that the new agency will deliver improved and efficient transport services. It looks like a Jerry Maguire-like moment of insomniac thinking that delivered the idea for a 'transportation czar.'

The second concern is about her insistence that one should build the Scarborough subway because Ontario government has committed partial funding for the project. It does not matter to her that the proposed subway line will serve fewer riders than other transit options. Instead, she is motivated by funding commitments by the Province. Remember, Toronto constructed the Sheppard Subway extension because the funding existed, and not because it was needed. Professor Mathew Turner of the University of Toronto estimates taxpayers are likely subsidizing each rider on the Sheppard Subway for at least four dollars.

The third and most important concern I have about Stintz is her lack of appreciation for evidence-based planning. In the debate yesterday, she insisted that the transport experts do not build transit, political will does. Again, let me point to the Sheppard Subway: a direct and wasteful result of Mel Lastman's political will. It is imprudent to assume that the world's great transit systems are the result only of political will and not sound planning.

Transport infrastructure should be developed as a multi-modal network that facilitates mobility for most at the least cost to taxpayers and for a minimum impact on the environment. Soknacki gets that. Stintz, though, misses these finer points. She may want to reconsider her position between now and the elections.

John Tory's pet project is the Smart Track plan to run frequent train service on existing rail tracks. He believes that Tax Increment Financing (TIF), a tax levied on real estate developments resulting from transit improvements, would cover the costs. His "plan" though is nothing more than lines drawn on a map. If Mr. Tory is serious about his candidacy, he should release a plan with some numbers and forecasts to substantiate how his estimated $2.7 billion of the $8 billion will be generated by TIF.

Improving mobility in Toronto, beyond the levels that exist today, requires a comprehensive and integrated transport plan that involves other neighbouring municipalities. A czar in Toronto will have no jurisdiction over transport services in Durham, Halton, Peel, and York regions. What is needed is a mayor who understands the networked approach to building the transport infrastructure, and not just public transit.

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