Those who ride the transit system are being invited to get on board the new Metrolinx draft plan at four public consultations next week - but my gut tells me this train has already left the station.
Still, I biked through pouring rain, to a Richmond Hill banquet hall for the first public discussion, on October 20, of the regional transportation plan that will steer decision-making for the next 25 years. It was a well-organized meeting, no embarrassing questions - well, no public questions at all actually. After a speech, people broke into groups to pretend to be regional planners, and at the end of the evening our facilitator read out our ideas.
Rob MacIsaac, the provincially appointed chair of Metrolinx, warns not to expect major revisions from these meetings. He's right: the province expects shovels in the ground before the 2011 election, so there's simply no time. The draft plan will be presented in November, less than a month after the public meetings.
"Don't let that board full of municipal politicians fool you," notes transit advocate Steve Munro. "This is a Queen's Park show. They want credit for building all of this stuff, but want an arm's-length agency to appear to be doing all the decision-making."
MacIssac agrees. "We are a creature of the province. It is quite logical that the level of government that raises the money should have a say in how it is spent."
So there we are. T.O. has four reps on the board of 11 (including the mayor and Adam Giambrone, a developer, a real estate entrepreneur), plus Hazel McCallion and some other regional members - but really, the last word is the province's.
One can see where this is going by looking at the issue of road tolls, for which MacIsaac has long advocated, to give Metrolinx an independent funding source.
The provincial Libs vetoed the idea, and so the $50 billion RTP now relies on the $11 billion Move Ontario Plan, part of a load of goodies that thundered out of the premier's office during the 2007 campaign.
The funding gap means only the 15-project short list and some minor quick-start proposals stand a good chance of breaking ground soon - assuming the economy doesn't tank. Three from the list are in Toronto and all begin at Pearson Airport, including the Union-Pearson express, the Eglinton line and the Sheppard-Finch LRT line.
If you want to see the potential pitfalls of a provincially controlled regional transport body, check out Vancouver's TransLink. BC's governing Liberals replaced local reps with provincial nominees after the board opposed two provincially supported private-public projects.
Ontario could be on the same track. Consider the SkyTrain that Metrolinx staff proposed for the Eglinton line to hook up with the existing Scarborough RT line. The idea is being floated despite TTC studies showing that a lower-cost light rail (LRT) line could easily handle the load.
A SkyTrain, as well as sucking up cash that could go toward the Transit City lines, would zoom across T.O., eliminating stops in between and forcing users to walk long distances to catch a bus - likely with sporadic service. Giambrone hopes "an evaluation based on the
numbers" will choose LRT.
This will be one to watch.
The province is also pushing the $2.6 billion York subway line, despite estimates of only a few thousand peak riders per hour for the extension to Vaughan Corporate Centre (Walmart, Ikea and Colossus) in former Ontario finance minister Greg Sorbara's riding.
Nevertheless, it appeared in the provincial budget.
Federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty likewise pencilled in a train to Peterborough that just happens to travel through his own riding and that of his wife, MPP Christine Elliott. In 2007, VIA concluded that only 80 daily riders would use the line, but McGuinty's Liberals quietly asked Metrolinx to study Flaherty's gravy train.
So why won't the Metrolinx board make some noise? Six of Metrolinx's 11 board members, including MacIsaac, served on the Greater Toronto Services Board (GTSB), the regional agency that preceded Metrolinx. This body should not be a puppet that rubber-stamps questionable provincial pet projects and privatization schemes. Either give Metrolinx a funding source and some independence or move the public hearings to Queen's Park, where we can speak directly to those now pulling the strings.