GTA transit and congestion relief stuck in neutral

The final report from the Transit Investment Strategy Advisory Panel offers little in the way of new ideas when it comes to transit in the Greater Toronto Area.

Back in September Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne established the Transit Investment Strategy Advisory Panel in order to determine “the best way forward” in improving transit and easing congestion in the Greater Toronto Area. Instead, the panel has pushed the debate into neutral.

The panel, which released its final report on Thursday, offers more of the same and will leave residents wondering if the exercise was worth all of the media attention and effort from organizations and citizens to have their voice heard when it comes to transit.  In its report, the panel falls back on the same plans – higher taxes – presented by Metrolinx, the provincial transit agency, but disguises them in new forms. The report calls for an increase in gas taxes of as much as 10 cents per litre, a hike in corporate taxes and a “redeployment” of a portion of HST revenue from gasoline sales.

Yet, the panel dismisses the one option that has been proven repeatedly to both ease congestion and encourage transit ridership – road tolls, which it calls too “expensive” and “complicated.”

Two things are immediately obvious from the panel’s “new” suggestions.

First, their impact on congestion is highly uncertain, as drivers could switch to more fuel efficient cars over time and offset the cost of increased gasoline taxes. Charging drivers more at the pump is not a fool-proof means of pushing people out of their cars. The cost of gas, both because of the cost of crude and higher sales taxes, has steadily increased in recent decades, but so too has the amount of distance driven per person.

Furthermore, charging businesses more in taxes and pouring a share of the province’s sales tax on gasoline purchases into GTA transit projects offer little in the way of congestion relief.

Second, throwing more money at a public transit system that has systemic problems – including wages for operators and fares that are both rising faster than inflation – will not be the catalyst that endears transit to a wary public. The transit panel even admits that the current model used to forecast costs doesn’t consider the “future operating, maintenance, and rehabilitation costs” of the transit projects being proposed.

Spending billions of dollars on new projects that will fail to fully recover those costs will more likely result in an even faster increase in fares. This would actually be a deterrent to new ridership.

Road tolls, on the other hand – particularly ones that move higher and lower depending on congestion – have a long track record of reducing congestion and promote transit ridership. One only need to look at the free-flowing lanes of the 407 highway during rush hour for proof.

But the 407 is just one example. Numerous cities in the United States have in recent years implemented tolls that offer a simple promise to drivers: pay the toll and traffic will remain free of congestion. Such a system has been put in place in Washington D.C., Miami and, more recently, Houston, among others. In every case, traffic on the tolled portions of those highways has improved and remained nearly free-flowing during peak travel periods.

Cities that have put in place a congestion charge – that applies a toll to drivers entering city centres – have also reduced congestion during morning and afternoon commutes.

And in both cases – tolls on highway and congestion charges – transit ridership has increased significantly both in absolute terms and as a percentage of commuters.

As for cities that have rushed headlong into grand transit schemes – including recent examples such as Dallas and Los Angeles, among others – they show that expanding transit to areas with little demand doesn’t always lead to higher ridership. And in nearly every city in North America, transit expansion has failed to notably decrease the percentage of residents who commute to work by automobile.

A panel that was supposed to offer a new perspective on transit in the GTA has instead rushed to the used parking lot of transportation ideas and failed, once again, to move the debate forward.

Read CPI’s submission to the Transit Investment Strategy Advisory Panel.

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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