02/25/2013 05:24 EST | Updated 04/27/2013 05:12 EDT

Toronto Transit: Build It -- And They Will Come


Remember the leap of faith Apple took in launching the iPad tablet before anyone needed or wanted one? A risk for sure, but a huge corporate success.

Here's a much shorter leap -- and an opportunity for smart growth and long-term success in the municipal world: Stop talking, and start building Metro Toronto's transit lines now.

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne has wisely made transit one of her short-listed priorities. Gridlock in the Toronto region costs the economy billions of dollars a year, harms our environment, and leaves lower income people literally sitting on the bus for hours each day.

If I were advising the new Premier of Ontario today, my advice would consist of one simple statement: Get the shovels in the ground now. Build the transit lines that we already have funding for -- then speak to the people about how to pay for the remaining lines.

We know we need it

Everyone instinctively understands why we need a transit network rather than a series of parallel lines. Just take a look at London, Paris, Berlin and New York and you'll see examples of transit networks that work. Networks allow people in every city neighbourhood to easily access rapid transit -- whether by LRT in lower density areas or by subway in high density neighbourhoods and corridors.

But here's the issue: Discussions and negotiations are stalled at the "where is the new money going to come from to complete Transit City" stage. And without seeing any construction happening -- or any lines in operation -- a request for funding too often sounds like an empty money grab.

Are money discussions important? Absolutely -- the Transit City Plan is ambitious, covering a 120 kilometer network of light-rail transit serving every neighbourhood in the City -- and the Metrolinx Big Move includes lines in the 905 area beyond Toronto as well. But we're missing the most important issue -- we already have billions of dollars allocated to projects right now, and we need to start the building process.

Build it now

Why is this so urgent? First of all, Toronto has a long history of planning for rapid transit, but not building. We must seize the moment when the funding and political will exist if we are to meet the needs of our residents and businesses and overcome decades of inertia. Secondly, for difficult to understand reasons, the provincial government has dramatically delayed the start of construction of two of the lines -- Finch and Sheppard. Sheppard, for example, started construction in 2009, but is now likely to restart, if all goes well, in 2017! That's unacceptable, and the province could powerfully demonstrate its interest in building transit in Toronto by getting construction of these lines underway immediately.

Why the delay? It's a combination of shortsighted politics, ideology, and a misplaced insistence on control. After the 2010 election, a political battle caused work to stop. Fortunately, City Council realized the error of not building transit and restored its commitment to these LRT lines in 2012. The funding is in place and the engineering is complete. Why isn't the process simply restarting and construction continuing? Simply put, the province doesn't want the TTC to oversee the private contractors who are building the Sheppard, Finch and Eglinton lines, and so is starting a completely new PPP procurement process. It recently announced the dates for choosing a new contractor for Sheppard and Finch to be 2016 and 2015 respectively -- for projects that should have been complete and running well before then.

This delay is unnecessary, and, because these projects were already well advanced in the procurement process commenced by the TTC, extremely wasteful of public funds -- into the tens of millions of dollars or more for Sheppard alone. Industry insiders are also saying that the Eglinton LRT procurement is too big to be done in one contract -- meaning there may well be further delays there as well.

It's time to build transit in Toronto, not to wait several more years to get shovels in the ground. Let's get the process started, have people see the progress and possibilities, and then talk about how to fund the rest of the lines. With real action, it's a different conversation -- and one far more likely to be successful.

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