Province reups transit investment vow after advocacy group points out $29B shortfall

August 16, 2016

The transportation ministry has reaffirmed its promises to fund transit  in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area, following the release of report that found the province's current ambitions are about $29 billion short.

On Tuesday, transit advocacy group Move the GTHA released "Are We There Yet?," a report that revealed an almost $29 billion shortfall for the slew of lofty undertakings planned in the GTHA over the next 25 years. The major transit projects evaluated in the report include the UP Express, Eglinton Crosstown LRT, York-Spadina subway extension, regional rapid bus routes, as well as GO Regional Express Rail (RER), all of which come with a total $68.1 billion price.

Combined, that amounts to 1,395 kilometers of rapid transit track in the GTHA by 2033, of which 113 kilometres is either existing or completed and 519 kilometres is fully funded. However, 763 kilometres - or more than half - is left turning out empty pockets.

[caption id="attachment_112594" align="alignright" width="300"] A man boards the Union Pearson Express in Toronto on Feb. 15. (Steve Russell / Toronto Star)[/caption]

"We're pretty much building as much transit as we can right now ... It would be great if there was some clarity around how we're going to do this over the next 25 years," Robert Plitt, the group's spokesman, told QP Briefing. "I think the real danger is that, whatever government is in power at the time, when the money starts to run out, it's  going to have to scramble to come up with some kind of contingency...

"I think the risk is we might build a system and not be able to run it."

The Ministry of Transportation said it has started to review the report. Spokesman Bob Nichols added the province will work with federal and municipal counterparts to support transit investments, citing the $32 billion worth of projects underway at Metrolinx and the $16 billion worth of priority rapid transit being built as part of the Moving Ontario Forward strategy.

"The province has invested in GTHA transit before the Moving Ontario Forward plan, and will continue beyond the current plan," Nichols said in an email.

Move the GTHA also broke down the $39.3 billion of capital funding to build 571 kilometers of rapid transit as follows: $30.9 billion from Ontario, $1.9 billion from municipal governments, and $6.5 billion from Ottawa. To finish building what it started eight years ago, Plitt said the province should secure funding from the feds. The federal Liberal government's budget included nearly $3.4 billion for public transit over the next three years, with ridership-heavy Ontario and Quebec claiming the lion's share.

The report suggests taxes and levies as a potential means for revenue. At minimum, Move the GTHA wants all three levels of government to hold a "transit summit."

"From a political perspective, I think the risk is that [generally] there continues to be an underlying discourse about lack of trust in government and transparency and all that stuff. The risk is that this could continue to perpetuate that, as opposed to saying the government is doing good planning, good strategy, and yes, we as a public have to get on board," Plitt said, adding, "We are entering a time when governments can be more out in front, in terms of leadership around this."

But once built, the network will start to age, and require an annual budget dedicated to maintenance and rehabilitation. The report estimates operational expenses will cost $1.6 billion per year by 2022, $3.8 billion by 2032, and $4.6 billion by 2042. "If the full network is not completed, costs will fall proportionally but still be very substantial," the report added.

Progressive Conservative transportation critic  Michael Harris said the report is proof of a spending problem, not a revenue problem, with the Liberal government, citing the province's ballooning debt as one example.

"They continue to make announcements on infrastructure projects that are significantly a long ways out without significant funding attachments or commitments as to where to get that money," Harris added.

On Monday Metrolinx launched public consultations for its 2017 Regional Transportation Plan, comments for which close Oct. 21.

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