A 3-stop subway is like buying a pig in a poke

johnIf money is the only big problem we have to worry about, then 2014 will be a terrific year for public transit in Toronto.

We now have solid recommendations by the Transit Investment Strategy Advisory Panel about how Premier Kathleen Wynne and her government can raise $2.6 billion a year for transit: Put an extra 3¢ tax on every litre of gasoline and diesel fuel, and increase it a penny a year until it reaches 10¢ a litre.

The gas tax option has a minimum impact on those of us who live in the centre of the city where we have relatively good transit options already, so we don’t have to rely on driving every day.

As well, it’s a tax change which influences behaviour in a good way  since it would cost more for driving more. Another possible charge with the same good influence is the highway toll, but it is expensive to implement, complicated to administer, and would take a long time to set up, which is why it was not recommended.

On the matter of fairness, living in the GTA we don’t realize how low our gas taxes are right now compared to other places. In Vancouver, gas taxes are 42¢ per litre; in Montreal, 32¢; in the GTA, just 25¢.

Raising the gas tax to 28¢ can hardly be thought to create a hardship, and as it then creeps up a penny a year over the next seven years, it will never reach Vancouver’s current rate.

So what’s not to like?

Well, money’s not the only problem. There’s also the issue of buying “a pig in a poke.”  That’s an old English phrase using “poke” as the word for pocket or bag. It’s dangerous to put your money down if you don’t really know if there’s a pig in the poke. You might be getting an old sock.

What we want to know is that the money raised for transit will be spent wisely.

Who wants to spend an extra $100 million for a 3-stop subway extension in Scarborough when a surface train will probably provide better transit service with more stops at much less cost?

The problem is that those responsible for planning the transit system don’t have a good track record. Our last investments were $1.1 billion on the underused Sheppard subway, thought to require a subsidy per passenger of more than $17, and $2.6 billion on the York University subway extension, ending in a 2-storey shopping mall at Jane and Highway 7 in Vaughan.

And it’s not easy to say who actually is responsible for planning the transit system.

Toronto City Council, the Toronto Transit Commission, the provincial government and the provincially appointed Metrolinx all seem to play a role, as well as the federal government, which put some $600 million into the Scarborough subway extension.  No one body bears ultimate responsibility.

A recent report by the Neptis Foundation (www.neptis.org) argues that transit plans for Toronto are muddled and a bad way to spend money. For instance, the report argues that GO Transit could be upgraded to 15 minute all-day-service with faster travel times for less money than it costs for Phase 1 of the Downtown Relief Line.

johnIt says that $1 billion could be saved on the Eglinton Crosstown if five stations promising few new passengers and no redevelopment opportunities were postponed, and even more money would be saved by using automated trains like the Vancouver Skytrain (which has been an enormous success.)

The Neptis report, done by a transit expert based in London, England, who used to live in Toronto and is very familiar with the city, contains many other criticisms of current plans (including the fact that Metrolinx seems unwilling to release its Benefit Case analysis studies for each project) and concludes that the options it recommends save $5 billion in construction, increase revenue by 64%, and increase daily riders by 43% compared with Metrolinx plans.

Maybe we need more money, but we also need better plans and perhaps one body which is responsible for planning, raising the revenues needed to implement those plans, then spending the money.

Let’s not pay for a pig in a poke. The push should be for agreeing on a smart transit plan, and only then implementing the new funding arrangement.

John Sewell is a former mayor of Toronto

One comment

  1. You make some good points in your column about the 3-stop subway but you miss some important points. Do you not realize that the main function of the TTC is to provide cushy jobs for commissioners and executives, and big profits for land-owners?

    The Shepard subway, for example, is a dead loss for the city buy a real boon to people who own land along the route. It’s also good for the TTC because it increases the size of the system, and therefore the importance and potential earnings of top brass.

    The Scarboro subway has some very obvious benefits to the TTC and to some businessmen. Most important, it makes it easier for people to live in Scarboro and work in Toronto. The surface route would serve more people but some of those people along the way would have a choice of working or shopping in either downtown Toronto or in Scarboro. With the subway, it’s reasonable to expect that few people who live in downtown Toronto would choose to work or shop in Scarborough.

    Have you ever been in Mexico City? They have a subway but they also have tens of thousands of small privately-owned busses — many of them owned and maintained by the drivers. They’re cheap, clean, efficient and you can get a bus from almost anywhere direct to almost anywhere. The system grew out of the ‘peso cab’ system they had in the 1950’s.

    The difference with the Mexican system is that if there is potential business, some bus will take the route. In our system a route is established if some pompocrat who never takes a bus thinks it would be a good idea, or perhaps if his aunt lives along the route and wants a bus stop at her door.

    There’s a section on city transit in the this link


    andy turnbull