Throwing Cash at Public Transportation isn’t the Answer – Strategic Funding is

A Toronto Star headline above a December 23, 2020 column on how to deal with the pandemic-driven crisis in public transportation deserves an award:  “Keep the Christmas cash coming, Ford and Trudeau.”


That statement and the column unintentionally summed up what has been wrong with transportation in Ontario for decades.  It’s the unlimited flow of public cash for projects that have done little or nothing to position transit as an alternative to the automobile.  Funding has largely been diverted to political vanity projects that have worsened the two areas where steady funding is and always has been urgently required:  day-to-day operations and state of good repair maintenance projects.


Ever-larger quantities of public cash in the hands of politicized agencies will only worsen the greatest crisis facing public transportation since urban sprawl and vote-chasing subsidization of the automotive/highway spending complex chewed deeply into transit ridership when wartime restrictions on car production, road building, and the sale of tires and gasoline were eliminated.


Key capital projects such as Toronto’s Yonge Street subway in 1954 and the creation of the one-line GO Transit commuter rail service in 1967 were visionary and valuable additions to our transportation grid.  Others, such as the failed Scarborough RT and Toronto’s Sheppard subway, were purely political.  They not only didn’t improve public transportation in pampered, vote-rich Toronto, they made it worse by contributing few riders and revenue at a high cost.


This favouring of capital projects that look good in re-election campaign brochures is growing worse in Ontario today.  The proposed $12-billion Ontario Line automated mini-metro in Toronto is a prime example.  Originally conceived in the 1980s as a heavy-rail subway to link downtown with Don Mills, it has languished so long and been warped in so many directions that it no longer makes any sense.  It certainly isn’t affordable when alternatives that could be launched faster and cheaper are considered – which they haven’t been.


The Ontario Line is typical of what has now become the political/consulting transit complex.  Wanting a transit line at any cost to generate what they believe will be positive voter responses, provincial agencies such as Metrolinx hire consultants to rubber stamp their politically-driven findings.  A prime example is the GO Transit expansion plan, which was vetted and authorized by the same semi-hidden Metrolinx consultant/advisor who concocted it in the first place.


Northern Ontarians might want to ask how any of this will aid them.


Public transportation does, indeed, require steady funding through this crisis.  But it requires a focus on the maintenance of service and whatever is required to keep it rolling and even expanding.  The operation of more frequent service on key urban transit and provincially-funded intercity routes would make it possible to effectively distance passengers and reduce any potential spread of the virus.  Funding of dubious construction projects does nothing to take advantage of the inherent strengths of public transportation.


There are some transportation leaders in the U.S. and Europe who have recognized this situation and are acting on what can best be described as a wartime footing.  Their focus is applying scarce-and-getting-scarcer public funding to making their operations safe and reliable, and positioning them as the preferred method to get their economies rolling when the virus is brought to heel.


What might best be described as an independent forensic audit of all of Ontario’s transportation spending is required to establish what shall be funded from a constrained public treasury.  Such audits require seasoned transportation professionals who – unlike politicians and consultants – aren’t looking for new careers.  The ones I’ve spoken with, such as former TTC chief general manager David Gunn, just want to see the transit industry set on a sustainable course, which it hasn’t been for decades.  Gunn, for example, resigned his TTC position after five years because he said the commission didn’t require his services when it already had three un-appointed chief general managers who were calling the shots:  the premier, the mayor, and a key city councillor on the transit commission who interfered openly in its decision making.  That was in 1999.


So, to those who call for a greater flow of public funding to transit mandarins under the thumb of politicians, shake your heads.  This stance makes you enablers of a system that has been out of whack since the 1970s.


The pandemic can change the way public transportation is applied to help shape our mobility and our destiny.  Strategically funded, it can convert the flawed concept of wasteful capital spending into stealthy service investments with high public payback.  Will it?