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`Seamless' transit elusive

THE TORONTO STAR March 9, 1998, Monday


One in an occasional series
looking at the people and forces
shaping Greater Toronto



MAN ON THE GO: “We still have a long, long distance to go” on co-ordintating transit, says GO managing director Rick Ducharme.

Patchwork system needs to be co-ordinated, experts say

By David Lewis Stein
Toronto Star Staff Reporter

Fulfilment of the grand hopes held out for public transportation seems a long way off when waiting for a bus at Ajax Plaza.

Environmentalists have long hoped commuters will one day forsake automobiles that spew out noxious gases for trains and buses.

Planners are hoping people will find living close to public transportation such a benefit they will choose closely packed townhouses over sprawling subdivisions that spill out across city borders, gobbling up farmland and wilderness.

But for all that to happen, experts say, many things must change.

“What we need is a seamless region-wide system, using both rail and bus, that can take people from one end of Greater Toronto to the other,” says GO Transit managing director Rick Ducharme.

“And we have made some attempts to work together - but we still have a long, long distance to go.”

Instead of a seamless system, Greater Toronto has GO Transit and the TTC funneling people to and from Toronto, while outside the city limits, 14 municipal transit systems mostly go their own way.

To show just how painfully ridiculous things can be, Ajax Councillor Jim McMaster shows a Star reporter the challenges of travelling by bus from Ajax, where he has lived for 15 years, to his office at the Durham Region municipal building in Whitby.

He pays $1.50 and boards an Ajax bus, which takes him up past the tidy World War II bungalows and small shopping plazas that line Harwood Ave., the main drag of Ajax.

At Highway 2, there is a 10-minute wait in a bus shelter for a GO bus. McMaster has to pay another $2 because GO does not accept transfers from the Ajax system.

The GO bus zips east on Highway 2 and lets him off at the centre of Whitby’s gracefully aging downtown.

McMaster has to walk a long block south to another windy bus shelter and wait another 20 minutes for the Whitby No. 3 bus.

When he boards it, he has to pay another $1.75; Whitby does not accept GO transfers.

The Whitby bus takes him up to the Durham Region administration building at Rossland Rd. and Garden St.

The one-way trip, which covered 11 kilometres, has cost $5.25 and taken one hour and five minutes. By car, the same trip takes 20 minutes.

“You can see why we need transit co-ordination,” McMaster says.

Simple to say, hard to achieve.

The 16 transit operators in Greater Toronto - GO, the TTC and 14 local systems - each answers to a different set of politicians.

Until the beginning of this year, Queen’s Park had the power to pull together all these separate transit authorities because the province helped pay their bills.

But on Jan. 1, Queen’s Park ended its support for public transportation, except for a couple of financial commitments to GO and the TTC that will expire soon. This is part of the province’s rearrangement of financial responsibilities; municipalities paying the full cost of hard services, Queen’s Park taking over education.

In future, all transit operators will be on their own.

“I have a whole bookshelf of reports telling the provincial government to co-ordinate transportation,” says Ed Levy, a transportation consultant with 40 years’ experience.

“Nothing ever came of any of them. Now, instead, the province is pulling out. They have balkanized the system.”

At the centre, there is the TTC, which serves the City of Toronto and answers to Toronto City Council.

Whitby does not accept transfers from Oshawa and Pickering buses

Then there is GO Transit, which uses trains and buses to bring people into Toronto and answers to a board of directors made up of the chairs of Peel, Durham, Halton, York and, from now on, the mayor of Toronto.

Then there are 14 local transit authorities, each answering to its own city council. They range in size from Mississauga, which has 300 buses, to Aurora, which has only two.

Local transit operators do try to work together.

Pickering buses carry people into Ajax. Vaughan and Brampton accept transfers from each other’s buses. The TTC runs buses into Markham. Mississauga Transit takes passengers into TTC stations at the west end of Toronto.

But voluntary co-operation has its limits. Whitby does not accept transfers from Ajax and Oshawa buses. Mississauga Transit is not allowed to pick up passengers as it passes through Toronto and take them to TTC stations, no matter how cold it is.

“If you want transit operators to work together, you need somebody to make decisions,” says Mississauga Transit general manager Ed Dowling. “You need someone to say, `You people resolve this by Friday. If not, by Monday we’ll tell you how to to do it.’ “

Ajax has pioneered a brilliant “smart card” system that works much like a bank’s automatic debit card; it helped Ajax gain recognition as the Canadian Urban Transit Association’s transportation system of the the year in 1993.

Ajax transit director Terry Barnett says his smart card could work like a transfer and people could use it to ride GO trains and local buses right across the region.

But so far the only other Greater Toronto city to use smart cards is Burlington.

Periodically, attempts are made to bring the municipal transit operators together into regional authorities at least - Durham Transit, York Transit, Peel Transit, Halton Transit - so they could begin to provide region-wide service.

But so far, there are no region-wide transit systems outside of Toronto.

A big part of the problem is that municipal politicians don’t want to see their local transit operations disappear into larger regional systems.

“If we have a regional transit system in York, how do we know that Vaughan and Richmond Hill and Aurora will come up to the level of service in Markham?” asks Markham Mayor Don Cousens. “Or will Markham go down the level of service in those cities?”

While transit operators protect their turf or, at best, warily co-operate, public transit is losing out. Only 10 per cent of the people moving around cities outside Toronto rely on local public transportation.

If you take away those riding local buses to GO stations so they can get into Toronto, only 5 per cent of the people moving around the regional cities rely on public transportation. Those estimates come from a report being prepared by the provincial transport ministry.

Clearly, Greater Toronto needs an east-west public transportation line north of the lakeshore GO corridor.

On Levy’s bookshelf are several traffic studies recommending an east-west rail system in the hydro corridor that runs parallel to Finch Ave. But nothing has ever come of them.

“It is really a pity, because I don’t think there is any doubt about the popularity of train commuting,” Levy says. “Just look at GO’s lakeshore line.”

On a recent Thursday morning, every seat on the 7:30 train in from Burlington is filled.

Jackie Lauer says she spends two hours and 45 minutes every day commuting back and forth from Burlington to her job at Gerrard and Bay Sts. But Lauer doesn’t mind.

She illustrates the attractive economics of rail commuting.

Her husband works for the same company and makes the same trip. Together, they pay $530 a month for commuting.

But when they moved here from Ottawa last year, they did research and discovered they could rent the kind of three-bedroom house they wanted in Burlington, buy their monthly train tickets and still save $800 a month over what they would have paid to rent the same kind of house in Toronto.

Clarkson, in west Mississauga, is the last stop before this becomes an express train zipping non-stop into Toronto. People pour on and wind up standing in the aisles and on the stairs of the swaying double-decker cars.

Claire Labelle is one of the people on her feet for the 20-minute trip into Union Station. But she doesn’t mind. When she and her sister moved here from Montreal, they decided Clarkson was where they wanted to be.

Despite GO’s popularity, successive provincial governments have steadily cut back support - from $188 million in 1993 to $106 million in 1998 - and GO has, in turn, been cutting back service on half a dozen routes.

Still, even while service was going down, ridership on trains and buses was going up - from 24.5 million in 1993 up to 26 million in 1997 and climbing fast (8 per cent since the beginning of the year).

Now the province has turned over the commuter system to regional governments of Greater Toronto.

Beginning in January, Durham, Peel, Halton, York and Toronto have to begin making up that $106.6 million Queen’s Park was putting into the system and finance any expansion. That could be expensive.

By 2021, the outer regions of Greater Toronto are expected to grow by 2 million people and GO is expected to add 25 million new passengers a year, according to a GO staff report.

To accommodate all those new riders, the staff said, GO should spend $1.1 billion over the next 20 years buying new trains, laying down new tracks and building new stations.

Where is all that money going to come from?

“I am certain we will be looking to the government of Ontario for some assistance to transport residents of the GTA,” says GO chairman Eldred King. “Toronto is the financial pulse of the province.”

Transport Minister Tony Clement sees it differently.

“We’ve got 5 billion good reasons why GO is a municipal responsibility right now,” Clement says. (Ontario’s deficit is expected to be $5.9 billion.)

Still, Clement is expected to announce some temporary help for GO and does hold out the hope of long-term help in the future.

Clement says Queen’s Park has to keep a hand in GO for legal reasons

“By the year 2000 we expect to have eliminated the deficit and completed our commitment to give Ontarians a 30 per cent tax cut,” Clement says. “After that, if there is an operating surplus for the government of Ontario, we have always said we would be prepared to discuss how to reinvest that surplus with our municipal partners.”

Clement shocked, and in some cases angered, GTA politicians when he gave King, the former chair of York Region, a three-year appointment just when he was handing off all financial responsibilities for GO to the Greater Toronto regions.

It looked like taxation without representation - the regions being made to pay for GO while Queen’s Park kept control of it. “I am the representative of the province of Ontario,” King says.

But Clement says Queen’s Park has to keep a hand in GO for legal reasons and for the day when a Greater Toronto services board takes over the transit operation.

The Harris government has received three reports - from Anne Golden’s GTA task force, David Crombie’s Who Does What panel and consultant Milt Farrow - all saying that some kind of partnership joining Toronto to the outer regions is absolutely necessary.

In June, Farrow proposed a services board on which the City of Toronto would have 14 seats and the outer regions would also have 14 seats. Municipal Affairs Minister Al Leach promised fast action on Farrow’s proposal.

So far, Leach has not acted. Instead, Queen’s Park is expected to announce proposals - probably this week - that would be even weaker than the partnership Farrow proposed.

At the same time Leach will formally announce that former Metro chairman Alan Tonks has been appointed as the fourth consultant to try to sell the idea of a region-wide services board to mayors like Mississauga’s Hazel McCallion.

“Politics is the art of the possible,” Tonks says.

He is to report back to Leach at the end of April.

Tonks and Farrow spoke last Thursday to the Canadian Urban Institute.

“The most important thing that is going to influence how this region does in the world is transportation,” Farrow said.

“The regions and the City of Toronto can provide sewers and water and look after garbage on their own. But there’s no way in the world that Halton, or Peel, or York, or Durham, acting on their own, can get someone from Oakville up to Richmond Hill on public transportation.

“It is absolutely critical that they put together a board that has the power to be involved in a Greater Toronto transportation system.”

But the future of the board - and how much power it will be able to exercise - has not yet been decided.

“The problem of transportation is not a question of money or technology,” Ed Levy says. “It’s man-made. It’s a question of political jurisdictions and turf protection.

“Transportation is a people problem.”

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