The Big Move:  the cost-benefits of regionalizing transit

The Big Move: the cost-benefits of regionalizing transit

By Betsy Agar

February 27, 2013

Although the name of the region (Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area or GTHA) implies only two municipalities under the Metrolinx umbrella, this is in fact a cooperative between no fewer than 26 municipalities.

While many may equate the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA) with urban sprawl, the urban heat of downtown Toronto and Hamilton give way to the agricultural and rural outskirts of Caledon and Scugog. Just as Metro Vancouver wrestles with rural-urban tensions, the GTHA faces the same challenges, over greater distances, and with higher populations. Despite these challenges, the GTHA is managing to find creative solutions to making transit the preferred choice of commuters.

When Metrolinx (the Government of Ontario agency responsible for transit spanning the GTHA) laid out The Big Move transportation plan in 2008, the agency’s Chair, Rob MacIsaac saw it as not just “a new way of doing business in transportation,” but also as a way to bring families and communities closer together. MacIsaac envisioned a transportation-oriented future with safer walking and cycling routes, and shorter commutes via efficient transit.

To MacIsaac, the region’s transportation network played a major historical role in the GTHA’s rapid growth through the 1970s and 80s, growth that was considered “ahead of its time.” However in the following decades, declining investment in transportation infrastructure, including roads and transit, prompted the need for Metrolinx and its Big Move.

The Big Move was realized through extensive dialogues with stakeholder groups including the general public, planning consultants, provincial and municipal staff, and transit agencies; MacIsaac credits the Province of Ontario for making this all possible. The plan lays out an ambitious expansion of rapid transit that will more than triple its current reach. Reduced road congestion from this expansion has not only environmental, but also clear economic benefits.

According to the Great Toronto Transit Authority report “Costs of Road Congestion in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area”, congestion incurs direct individual costs and impacts the broader economy, including regional GDP. For example, unreliable trip times can incur economic and social costs such as reduced productivity, and congestion increases vehicle maintenance costs, vehicle emissions, as well as the frequency of accidents.

Metrolinx is focused not only on expansion but also on integrating the fare system throughout the entire region, making their regional transit services more convenient and efficient for a population of over 6 million people. Unlike Vancouver, nearly every municipality already operates its own transit, and unifying the fare system across all municipalities has proven to be expensive.

Not surprisingly, funding infrastructure projects is an ongoing struggle, and Metrolinx has faced many “bumps in the road.” In search of creative funding solutions, Metrolinx regularly consults with the public and other stakeholders. The Resident and Civil Construction Alliance of Ontario (RCCAO), a labour-management collective, recently recommended Metrolinx implement a distance-based fee system. RCCAO also recommended municipalities consider innovative revenue options, such as transit-focused taxes, restructuring fee systems for municipal parking, and tolling key roads and highways during peak-hours. So far, Metrolinx is considering charging fees to park at GO Stations. Each of these options has its drawbacks. In the case of parking fees, some argue that this will raise the cost of commuting transit above the cost of driving to work.

Developing innovative funding solutions for infrastructure challenges, establishing cooperation between several municipalities, and adapting to different urban and rural needs, are not challenges unique to Metro Vancouver. They are inherent in developing efficient, convenient public transportation that draw people out of their cars, no matter where you happen to get on board.

(Icon photo courtesy of Danielle Scott/Flickr, map courtesy of Metrolinx)


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