Proposed Tory transit powers are fine, but is the government prepared to use them?

OPINION: The Progressive Conservatives have announced they’re ready to introduce a new bill and regulations to speed up transit planning. They may not be ready for the backlash
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Feb 07, 2020
Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney announced Thursday that the government will be introducing new powers to expedite its four biggest transit priorities. (John Michael McGrath)

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Let’s start with an undeniable fact: it takes too long to get transit projects in Ontario built. And if we’re serious about building cities where transit is more abundant and accessible (debatable), one obvious thing the government could do is work on its own processes for approving new projects. Government can’t make shovels dig faster or concrete cure faster, but it can at least move paper faster.

So, while one would be justified in having doubts about the government’s transit priorities — and I have a number — it’s still possible to greet the changes Ontario’s transportation minister Caroline Mulroney announced yesterday as good news. Mulroney says that, when the legislature returns from its winter break after Family Day, the government will be introducing a new bill and regulations that, if passed, will speed up the process for environmental approvals and assembling land necessary for transit projects.

(The government is also proposing to introduce a new requirement that would see developers consult with Metrolinx on any major construction project that might interfere with transit building. Cynics might call that “red tape”; Mulroney insists that it’s simply a common-sense move. But perhaps the government is learning that every regulation starts with good intentions?)

These proposals do, though, raise certain questions. For example: Mulroney says that these special powers will be reserved, at least for now, for the government’s four biggest transit priorities — the Ontario Line, the Scarborough subway extension, the Eglinton Crosstown West extension, and the Yonge North subway extension. The government seems willing to move bureaucratic heaven and earth to get them built. Why not do the same for other projects?

After all, the government’s priorities aren’t the only things going in the GTA transit universe. The Scarborough subway, if it gets built at all, will carry fewer riders than several TTC bus and streetcar lines, and the city is currently looking at ways to improve service on some of those lines. Other projects, such as the Waterfront East LRT, are desperately needed for the city’s long-term plan but have the small drawback of not being key parts of Progressive Conservative re-election planning. Big or small, expensive or cheap, these projects will carry real riders to and from their real homes, and they deserve to be expedited just as much as the province’s vanity projects do.

That complaint aside, there’s a rather more obvious problem for the government: giving yourself power is not the same thing as actually using that power. The real test will come well after the lieutenant-governor signs this bill into law, when Metrolinx starts actually going into neighbourhoods and telling landowners — and more importantly, their neighbours — that big changes are coming and coming fast, meaning there will be less time for local activists to mobilize against them.

The government is already facing heat from downtown neighbourhoods over its planned route for the Ontario Line, but recent history provides numerous examples of such community backlash. The TTC spent years arguing with neighbourhoods over the placement and construction of second exits at subways stations that currently have only one; Metrolinx raised the ire of then-councillor Jon Burnside when it bought a McDonalds as part of the Eglinton Crosstown construction (Burnside speculated that the purchase was a Trojan horse that would usher in new development); and residents in the Junction in Toronto’s west end objected strongly to Metrolinx plans for a rail bridge that would make possible higher-frequency service on the Barrie line.

The Tories can try to speed up the bureaucratic progress of projects, but, when the rubber hits the road and they try to use their powers, they’re going to get real political heat from real voters. And those voters are not going to be wild about the government’s plans to make developers an integral part of the process, either.

To be clear (if repetitive): all the changes the government is proposing should be seen as, at the very least, defensible by anyone serious about transit building. Indeed, industry groups spent years begging the Liberals to ease up on the environmental-assessment process for transit projects, to no avail. But the question the Tories need to answer is, are they prepared to use these powers and not, as they’ve done before, retreat at the first sign of political blowback?

Mulroney, for her part, says the government is serious.

“Today’s intent is to signal that we will be implementing a series of tools that will help us meet the deadlines we’ve all agreed to,” she told reporters on Thursday, referring to an agreement with Toronto City Council on transit planning. “We’re very serious about moving forward with our plans and getting shovels in the ground.”

This city has heard that before. Maybe someday it will turn out to be true.

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