By: Martin Pharand
Ontario’s 2013 budget “A Prosperous and Fair Ontario” maintains the provincial government’s commitment to solid infrastructure funding. However, behind this seemingly positive announcement lies the instructive history of how Metrolinx came to be and why, today, we need to begin loudly supporting Metrolinx’s proposed revenue tools to build modern transit.
Ontario’s 2013 budget outlines a number of important promissory statements and commitments to infrastructure. Of particular note, if you haven’t already heard, are the High-Occupancy-Toll (HOT) lanes. These lanes will replace select HOV lanes on major thoroughfares, and charge a toll for single passenger vehicles. The idea being that single passenger vehicle commuters are big contributor to traffic congestion and so, by increasing the cost of travel, the right sample of commuters will begin to take transit or carpool; reducing gridlock, and emissions.
Besides the budget’s positive policies and promises, it is important to remember how the government came to consider these seemingly unpopular measures to raise the necessary funds to build transit infrastructure.
During the Harris-Eves Premierships, there were substantial changes in the government’s overall approach to infrastructure. The Superbuild Corporation, Smart Growth Panels, and the Greater Toronto Services Board were all touted as innovative mechanisms created to tackle infrastructure, growth, and transportation policy in Ontario.
These organizations and agencies were developed with the implication that government could no longer tackle major problems, like infrastructure, on its own. One common tool used to relieve the government were/are public-private partnerships, aka P3s. While P3s were and still remain an increasingly necessary attempt at bridging the gap between the public and private sectors, they were consecutively used by conservative administrations such as the Harris and Eves governments and made into plans for total privatization. One concrete example of this was the combination of deregulation and oversimplified P3 implementation that led to the E. coli crisis in Walkerton. Considering the seriousness of this affair, it is no wonder that Infrastructure Ontario avoids the term P3 today, preferring Alternative Financing and Procurement (AFP) instead, and why, an overzealous commitment to hacking away at the size of government is so toxic and destructive.
How does Metrolinx fit in, and how did it get here? Although not a P3, being an arm’s length agency of the provincial government, it is cut from a similar cloth (and that’s not necessarily a bad thing). But, it all started with the Greater Toronto Services Board (GTSB) that was created in 1998. The board was made up of Greater Toronto politicians and tasked to deliver reports to the government on a number of policy areas, including transit infrastructure. The board hired consultants, did research, met regularly, and debated the evidence until being dissolved in 2001. It took four years of research, and consultancy fees, and yet at the very beginning of the GTSB’s meetings, it was quite clear that the evidence indicated that Ontario needed a serious infrastructure plan and a transportation authority to carry out that plan.
Finally in 2006, Metrolinx, or what was then the Greater Toronto Transit Authority, was created. Eight years of poor commitment, no action, and a government bent on reducing the size of government that even presented a budget outside of the legislature¸ was voted out because Ontario could no longer stand such a flippant and simplistic approach to governance.
Today in Toronto, we are faced with a similar situation, and a rather large one at that, sitting in the mayor’s chair at city hall. But even outside of Toronto there is and has been a consistent feeling in the air, that the government’s size or spending in general should scaled back, leading many to be revolted at the idea that Metrolinx would require taxed revenue to go through with its award winning infrastructure plan, The Big Move.
If history has taught us anything, it is that the misunderstanding, disrespect and misrepresentation of governance that is implied by those who overzealously seek to reduce its size when voted in, are detrimental to the process of government, the livelihood of citizens, and the progress of a jurisdiction. Something as crucial as infrastructure cannot be done on the cheap. If anything the cheapest approach, (really the do nothing approach) has been the government’s approach on this file for long enough. Now that Metrolinx has released its list of revenue tools, it’s time to buckle-down to fix a problem that was never planned for and has been continuously neglected.