Uploading Toronto’s subway could be step toward ‘true regional approach,’ say U of T profs

The provincial government’s hotly-debated plan to “upload” Toronto’s subway network could spark much-needed dialogue about getting regional transit back on the rails, according to a pair of University of Toronto professors.

In a new report from the Institute on Municipal Finance and Governance on GTA transit, which was released Thursday, the authors note Toronto transit planning is often deemed “uniquely dysfunctional.”

“A city-region as big as the Greater Toronto Area … requires a system of transit governance equal to the scope of the territory and the task at hand,” according to Drew Fagan, a professor at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, and Matti Siemiatycki, Canada Research Chair in Infrastructure Planning and Finance and interim director of the university’s School of Cities.

According to Fagan, a former Ontario deputy infrastructure minister, it could be beneficial to run both subways and rapid transit on a regional basis through Metrolinx, the provincial agency tasked with managing transit throughout the Golden Horseshoe.

“The upload is just part of what’s necessary. I’m not even certain it’s absolutely necessary,” he said. “That is just one piece of a conversation that needs to be held to have a true regional approach.”

The authors argue evidence-based decisions should trump political manoeuvring, with a focus on improving service coordination among transit agencies for “all modes of transportation” beyond subways and rapid transit, be it bus routes that cross regional boundaries or car-sharing programs.

If done properly, the authors write, the dialogue could improve transit across the board, “not just the TTC subway system.”

On Wednesday, a spokesperson for Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney responded to the report.

“Toronto needs a transit network that fits the demands of a rapidly growing population,” Barbara Mottram said in a statement to CBC Toronto. “The report echoes what we’ve been saying all along — government gridlock has prevented big projects from being built for decades.”

Minister promises ‘improved connectivity’

Premier Doug Ford’s government first floated the concept of “uploading” the TTC subway system during the 2018 provincial election.

Since then, a special adviser has been tapped, and the government passed legislation earlier this year — the Getting Ontario Moving Act —  to give the province ownership of future expansion projects in Toronto’s system.

The province has also outlined multiple priority projects, including the Ontario Line, a 15-kilometre stretch from Ontario Place to the Ontario Science Centre which would connect to the TTC and GO networks, replacing the concept of a subway relief line.

The upload plan as a whole, still being discussed behind the scenes, would mean the TTC maintains control of subway, bus and streetcar operations day-to-day while keeping the fare box revenue.

Former transportation minister Jeff Yurek has said the shift would allow the government to focus on a regional network and get shovels in the ground faster.

“That means fare integration and improved connectivity between transit systems,” he said in a speech last spring. “We would be able to prioritize transportation projects and make decisions based on what is best for the people of Ontario, not just Toronto.”

But the upload plan was met with instant pushback from a variety of critics.

As CBC Toronto reported in January, some say a complex takeover might not fix a crucial issue for the TTC: a multi-billion-dollar funding crunch over the next decade and a half, just to maintain the existing system.

“This is a terrible plan for riders,” said Shelagh Pizey-Allen from rider advocacy group TTCRiders. She wants to see TTC funding boosted and long-in-motion transit projects like the relief line moved forward.

Toronto’s council, while remaining in talks with the province, has also pushed back against the plan.

Some members have criticized the upload approach as “unilateral,” suggesting it could leave “Toronto residents in the dark,” according to a motion to council from Coun. Josh Matlow and Coun. Joe Cressy in February.

Transit planning done ‘in secret’

Fagan said many of the concerns are valid, particularly those about transparency.

“In the case of the Ontario Line, Metrolinx has planned it almost entirely in secret,” he and Siemiatycki write in their report. “There have been few opportunities to provide meaningful feedback, so it is virtually impossible to assess the merits of the plan.”

There’s a need for ongoing public consultation, focusing on regionally-important projects “with a realistic chance of funding,” their report stresses.

“We need a more open conversation involving more government parties and more members of the public as well,” Fagan said.

Other cities across Europe and North America are already doing a better job than Toronto of building a regional network, including Paris and Madrid, he added.

“They have a responsible and relatively powerful regional authority that imposes a regional vision for transit priorities, then a series of local transit authorities looking at local matters,” he said.

But Pizey-Allen warned taking Toronto transit decisions out of the city’s hands could be “disastrous,” no matter what talks are happening, since MPs across Ontario aren’t connected to the city’s distinct needs.

“The TTC is local transit,” she added. “To improve service, we don’t need dialogue. We need funding.”

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