Public views Metrolinx and other transit agencies with distrust

Metrolinx is trying to push ahead with a $50 billion plan for transit expansion, but the public remains skeptical of public transportation agencies.

As Metrolinx, the provincially run agency tasked with overseeing transit planning across the Greater Toronto Area, pushes ahead with its $50 billion expansion plan, it’s going to have to contend with a stark reality: people don’t trust it, or governments altogether, when it comes to transit.

That’s the most notable outtake from a recent round of public hearings hosted by an advisory panel reviewing Metrolinx’s suggestions for funding its $50 billion plan.

“The most forceful message that emerged from all four meetings is that people do not trust governments. They don’t trust their ability to plan transit, to manage the funds, or to execute the plan,” the panel said in its report on the public hearings.

The report added that many residents called for the “de-politicization” of transit planning and, instead, wanted projects based on “evidence-based decision making.” In addition, the public called for new transit lines that would generate “high initial ridership” and “minimize operating subsidies.”

And after nearly six years since Metrolinx launched The Big Move – its regional transportation plan that would see it move ahead with a downtown subway line, LRTs in Hamilton and Mississauga, dedicated bus-lanes and all-day and two-way bus service on GO trains, among other projects – the public still doesn’t understand quite what it is.

“Despite many extensive attempts by government and Metrolinx to help people understand The Big Move transportation plan, people felt that they really did not have enough information on how implementation of the plan would benefit them today and in the future,” the panel noted.

The public is right to question decisions surrounding transit in the GTA.

Ontario’s Auditor General recently said the ridership forecasts for Metrolinx’s express train service from Union Station to Pearson International airport are likely “overly optimistic” and that running the line on a break-even basis “may not be feasible.”

The auditor general also said that the Metrolinx-designed electronic fare system, Presto, may eventually cost as much as $700 million – making it one of the most expensive fare systems in the world. It also took the agency to task for not competitively tendering the contract to develop the fare system.

And more recently, the renovation of Union Station – also overseen by Metrolinx – has seen its price tag jump from an initial $640 million to $795 million and counting – a 24% increase.

The TTC is no better. The Scarborough subway – which was recently approved by Toronto’s city council – will cost, according to one scenario, as much as $4.5 billion, yet operate at one-third of its total capacity during its busiest times. Officials at the TTC admitted the project will “result in a surplus capacity that may not be required within a reasonable long term planning horizon.” They also said it will take money away from other, more vital, projects.

And Consumer Policy Institute recently analyzed Metrolinx’s carpool program, Smart Commute, and found that after nearly a decade in existence and millions of dollars in funds, it has failed to make an impact on congestion in the Greater Toronto Area. The program has reduced the number of kilometres driven each month by commuters in the GTA by a negligible 0.08%. Yet, since 2004, Smart Commute has received more than $20 million in funding, largely from government coffers.

The public is voicing its distrust of politically-oriented transit development for good reason – as many of the recent projects have failed to come in on time and on budget, while also not meeting optimistic ridership forecasts or easing congestion.

Brady Yauch is an economist and Executive Director of the Consumer Policy Institute (CPI). You can reach Brady by email at: bradyyauch (at) consumerpolicyinstitute.org or at (416) 964-9223 ext 236.

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