By Cherise Burda
This week, the Toronto Region Board of Trade proposed the creation of “Superlinx”, a new provincial agency that would subsume Metrolinx and all nine municipal transit agencies in the region. While most people agree integration of transit is a good thing, amalgamation is a different thing entirely, and would harm the City of Toronto and, because of our mutual interdependence, the entire region.
The Board of Trade’s proposal asks each municipality to surrender all transit-related revenue, including fare box, property tax for transit, and its share of federal and provincial gas tax revenue, as well as capital assets. Superlinx would then assume all operating expenses, capital costs, and take on each municipality’s transit debt.
With approximately 80 per cent of the entire region’s transit rides occurring in the 416, and gas tax contributions now predicated on ridership—not population—Toronto would be surrendering the lion’s share of revenue and assets: The net asset to debt contribution for Toronto would be $3.5 billion, an order of magnitude 10 to more than 100 times greater than the net asset contribution of each of the other municipalities.
However, there is no guarantee that Superlinx would allocate services and investment to Toronto proportionate to what the City contributes or needs. Amalgamation runs the predictable risk of cannibalizing Toronto’s contributions to subsidize the spreading of services and transit investment throughout the region, while starving the centre. The City of Toronto would have minimal representation on a regional board appointed by the Province.
This has happened elsewhere. For instance, in New York City, transit was built on the fringes to serve low-density regional interests and neglected in the booming core, until strong measures were taken to reverse this trend.
The Board of Trade report correctly identifies the problems that paralyze our region: lack of sufficient and sustainable funding; transit fare walls that prevent integration; lost opportunities to develop around transit stations; land use planning and transit decisions not aligned; and political intrusion. However, solving these problems by creating a whole new super agency is not the answer, and could make things worse.
While creating a single powerful authority that could make decisions may sound appealing, it would undermine hallowed principles of good governance, namely accountability and responsiveness.
Accountability requires decision-makers to be held responsible for their actions, and for the process to be open and transparent enough to encourage the access and participation of all stakeholders. Responsiveness requires that local community needs and preferences are given due consideration. The principles of good governance for transit systems–including coordination, efficiency, and adequate funding–can be achieved without sacrificing local input, and with thoughtful reforms to our current governance system.
For example, the Metrolinx Act includes a tool called the Transportation Planning Policy Statement (TPPS) which was created in 2008 but has never been given regulatory power. It would enable Metrolinx to prioritize evidence-based transit investments and ensure municipalities plan and pre-zone for appropriate transit-oriented densities and complete communities around transit infrastructure.
To strengthen the relationship of the Metrolinx board with regional municipal politicians, there are ideas that could be explored from other metropolitan transit systems, such as the British Columbia Translink model of a Mayor’s Council.
A couple of weeks ago, Ryerson City Building Institute hosted a panel on transit governance, which included former transit agency leaders from Denver, Vancouver and NYC who shared their experiences and transit expansion successes. As one of the panelists suggested: You don’t need a new agency; just improve the current structure you have.