Transit problems across Canada prompt calls for politicians to address issue

Time to lead

Globe and Mail Saturday, Mar. 26, 2011 1:31PM EDT

Commute times in Canadian cities are no longer just a source of rush-hour irritation, but a national liability affecting the economic performance of our urban centres and requiring immediate intervention from Ottawa.

A new ranking of international cities by the Toronto Board of Trade saw major Canadian municipalities fall dramatically behind in the realm of transportation and transit, prompting big-city mayors and transit experts to call on all federal parties to address the issue in the election, or suffer the consequences.

“We need to make this a significant election issue and it’s critical that parties develop a response,” said Michael Roschlau, president of the Canadian Urban Transit Association. “I just hope it doesn’t take a crisis to get there: that traffic congestion gets so bad, commute times get so long, that we have to react instead of being proactive.”

The rankings in the Board of Trade’s annual Scorecard on Prosperity, which measures cities on a number of economic, social and structural indicators, suggest that Canadian cities are already on the brink of crisis.

Not a single Canadian city cracked the top 10 on transportation issues, which measured such factors as commute times, transit ridership, kilometres of existing rail and vehicles per capita.

Montreal fared best, in 12th place, followed by Calgary (13), Toronto (19) and Vancouver (21), but all were outperformed by Hong Kong, Stockholm, Paris, London and New York.

And Canada’s failings in the transportation realm had a negative impact on cities’ overall rating, with Toronto dropping from fourth to eighth place due largely to its “crippling congestion.”

The report noted that Toronto’s reputation is also tarnished by its 80-minute average round-trip commute, signalling an “urgent need to invest in public transportation.” 

“We would certainly hope that one of the key issues that this election is fought on is around a national transit strategy,” said Board of Trade president and CEO Carol Wilding. “There has to be a vision brought to it across all levels of government.”

Unlike other countries, Canada has never had a national transit strategy. Although Ottawa has grown increasingly involved in transit over the past 10 years, averaging investments of about $600-million a year, the funding remains ad hoc, with no predictability.

In the lead-up to this week’s federal budget, the mayors of some of Canada’s largest cities appealed to Finance Minister Jim Flaherty to address transit and the $123-billion urban infrastructure deficit.

But while Mr. Flaherty promised to develop an infrastructure plan and make the transit-funding gas tax permanent through legislation, no new money was designated.

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson derided the budget for being “thin on public transit” and said he looked forward to seeing the issue raised on the campaign trail.

“I hope that cities figure largely in the federal election,” he said. “There’s been years of sliding behind on economically critical steps for cities, and that trend has got to be reversed.”

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi said he plans to spend much of the coming campaign “pushing the parties” on the urban agenda and noted that any leader who hopes to win a majority government will have to win ground in large cities.

“You have to shift your thinking from transit as an expense to be managed, to an investment in the future of the community,” he said.

Without a fixed source of funding, cities will remain unable to keep up with their growing populations.

In Vancouver, which posted the worst showing in the Toronto Board of Trade’s transportation rankings, major new projects have been few and far between, despite the recent Olympic Games. The SkyTrain debuted for Expo 86. The proposed Evergreen Line – a $1.4-billion SkyTrain extension that would link Coquitlam to Vancouver – has been on the drawing board since the 1990s but has stalled repeatedly over money problems. South of the Fraser River, cities like Surrey, Delta and Langley are forecast to have some of the biggest population increases in the region over the next 30 years, but haven’t seen an increased share of transit cash, or service.

Last year, the mayors’ council for TransLink, the regional transit authority, turned down a plan that would have relied on property tax increases to fund several major projects, including the Evergreen Line.

Provincial and federal dollars for the project have been lined up, but TransLink still needs to come up with its $400-million share of the tab, and funding for the project has been an issue for more than a decade.

“It hasn’t gone away, it has gotten worse,” Port Moody Mayor Joe Trasolini said. “Business suffers when you don’t have efficient transportation systems and you have things left in the air without any certainty.”

Calgary, too, is having trouble keeping up. The city received a D ranking from the Board of Trade largely because 76.8 per cent of its population drive to work, the highest of any Canadian city.

Still, about 270,000 commuters pile onto Calgary’s 30-year-old C-Train light-rail system each day, and it’s at the limit.

The city is building a West LRT extension, a six-station line to be completed next year at a cost of $1-billion, adding to the two-line, 38-station system currently in place.

In Toronto, congestion has reached epic proportion and large-scale projects by the regional transit authority Metrolinx (the Big Move plan) have been thrown into jeopardy by the election of Mayor Rob Ford, who is firmly opposed to expanding light rail.

Neil McMonagle, a Washington-based transit consultant who has been working with Metrolinx, argues that a transit plan needs to exist outside the realm of politics.

“The Big Move, conceptually is a really good document, but it seems to have been knocked off course because of the politics,” he said. “You need an agency that takes a longer-term view, simply because these projects themselves are going to span multiple terms of office and multiple governments.”

Of all the Canadian cities ranked by the Board of Trade, Montreal did best when it came to transit, due mostly to more affordable fares and heavier usage of its commuter rail system.

But many Montreal commuters are more likely to point out the city is still only graded a mediocre C.

Philip Morgan, a transit commuter and self-described “transportation freak,” says Montreal’s is plagued by basic equipment problems, such as unheated switches that become jammed by ice and snow. But he said transit systems in Toronto and Montreal both lack the corporate culture he’s seen overseas where it’s unacceptable for trains and buses to run late.

And the commuter rail system – Montreal’s main supposed advantage over Toronto – has become a running joke and is even the subject of a class-action lawsuit for being late.

“It’s fine to compare to Toronto,” he said. “How about comparing to cities in Asia and Europe where transit truly works?”

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