Three years, 11 months and seven days. That’s the length of time between last month’s municipal vote and the next provincial election. Never in Toronto’s history have we had a longer election-free period for the two orders of government that most directly impact our region. This kind of political stability is a once-in-a-lifetime event.
This unique opportunity must not be squandered if we want to build a more livable, healthier and more prosperous region. This is especially true in the area of transportation and planning, which was a ballot question in both elections.
Both Premier Kathleen Wynne and Mayor-elect John Tory are to be commended for making traffic and transportation a cornerstone of their campaigns. However, if they are going to capitalize on this historic opportunity, election platforms alone will not be enough.
In government, Wynne and Tory can do some political heavy lifting — something that was understandably more challenging to do leading up to election campaigns. Now is the time for a bolder and more comprehensive vision for our region’s transportation systems.
Many worthy ideas have been championed by transit stakeholder groups in Toronto, including this week’s contributions by the Amalgamated Transit Union. Defeated parties and candidates have also contributed valuable ideas for our region. Our mayor and our premier must harvest from them all.
The logical place to start is with quick fixes to our existing transportation system.
The major increase in bus service levels is one such idea. Private citizens are already beginning to organize such services on their own — a testament to how badly improvements to surface transit are needed.
Modest congestion pricing is another idea worth considering. It would spread out expressway traffic over longer rush hours to ease the worst congestion. If increasing the tax burden is a concern, these congestion charges could be offset by reductions in other non-behavioural taxes, as was done for the introduction of time-of-day hydro rates.
Of course, responsible leadership demands that governments plan and act for the long term as well.
We need to better address the Greater Toronto Area’s well-documented revenue shortfall, and the need for more rapid transit lines that go beyond what can be built without raising new funds. The frustrating truth is that many critical long-term infrastructure investments will not happen soon under current fiscal plans.
It‘s equally critical that the upcoming reviews of provincial and municipal growth plans are done right: infrastructure investments and urban planning goals need to be aligned. We can’t afford to build subways to nowhere, or new transit stations in areas that lack the density to support them.
Our region’s transit authorities must learn to facilitate development above TTC and GO stations, and coexist in the same space as residential and commercial developments. New stations proposed under the GO train electrification initiative should be prioritized based on the development they actually have at the planning stages — not on the hope of attracting developers’ interest after the fact.
None of these ideas are at odds with Wynne’s or Tory’s agendas. Economic growth and employment were centerpieces in both of their campaigns. As the Toronto Region Board of Trade highlighted in its recent Build Regional Transportation Now report, there is no better enabler of regional economic growth than well-planned transportation infrastructure.
A comprehensive transportation system makes it easier for people get to work and encourages more of them to enter the labour force. It is a necessity in order to unlock the full economic value of future commercial and residential developments in areas such as Toronto’s waterfront.
Our premier and our mayor have 47 months to build momentum and make up for decades of aborted transportation plans and infrastructure neglect. Working together, and with other leaders in the Toronto region, they can advance more ambitious solutions to our transportation and planning challenges. This is an opportunity never before seen in our region. Let’s not squander it.
Richard Joy is the Executive Director at the Urban Land Institute Toronto.