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Moving Arguments: Let’s Keep the Politics Out of Transit Investment

Transit is the hot political commodity of 2018, and that means Canadians should expect to see pro-transit commitments from every order of government and every political stripe—but with political support comes politicization. Transit infrastructure projects are major investments so public scrutiny and political oversight are to be expected. Still, in the debate about when, where and how to build a new transit project, we must not allow objective and professional analysis to be trumped by political bluster.

This trend is true across Canada, though perhaps most acute when it comes to the discussion regarding LRTs and subways in Ontario.

Every major political party supported transit in the 2015 Canadian federal election. Our ability to compare and contrast different transit platforms was a great service to Canadians, and was no doubt influential in particular ridings across the country. 

Previously the federal government, as well as most provincial governments, did not fund transit very much. These governments did not view it as their responsibility to fund what was thought of as strictly municipal projects. Ultimately, this led to woefully underfunded transit systems that could not expand at the rate needed. This has left us today with some communities underserved by transit and other communities at or exceeding their transit capacity.

Now that the federal government and provinces are committed to long-term transit investment, these government also have a stake in transit projects and want to exercise control over the direction and scope of these projects. This is more problematic than it may sound.

Nobody knows the mobility needs of a city better than a transit system and its local government. On a daily basis, transit systems move millions of people across Canada, routes are regularly amended to meet changing needs and, if something isn’t working right, the transit system, as well as the municipality and local councilors, will hear it directly from those affected. The same is true if a proposed transit project is misguided, too costly or too disruptive—there is a direct link from the citizens affected by transit and the people planning, building and operating it.

As such, local transit systems are very scrupulous when it comes to transit investments. They build out strong business cases, conduct thorough environmental assessments, and perform extensive community consultations before deciding to move forward with a transit project. They also rely on the objective and professional advice of transit planners, engineers and economists. Even an immaculately planned transit project will not make everyone happy, but it will certainly create a tangible benefit for the community as a whole.

That is why it is so concerning when you see other orders of government—or even external stakeholders—meddling in the transit planning and procurement processes of local governments. The second guessing of approved projects drives a wedge between the community and the local government, and often leads to additional costs and delayed timelines.

What’s worse is that this pollicisation of infrastructure projects can be a very effective tool in the hands of a motivated politician looking to undermine transit investment as a concept. Evidence-based decision making must be at the core of any infrastructure project, not political slogans or targeted misinformation. A transit project should be judged on its business case, not its narrative.

Let’s not let transit in Canada become a victim of its own popularity. The best political platform for transit isn’t the one that has the most extravagant project proposals, but the one that grants transit systems and municipalities the flexibility to plan, procure, build and operate whatever vision for transit has the largest community consensus, will provide the most social and economic benefits, and will work towards achieving that community’s long-term planning objectives.

The ten-year, $20.1 billion federal plan for transit investment strikes this chord nicely by providing funding certainty over a long-period of time for local governments. It also limits the federal role in project selection or planning. This program provides an excellent foundation for provincial and municipal participation, giving the next ten years the potential to be revolutionary for Canadian urban mobility.

But this vision of a connected and sustainable urban landscape in Canada will only be realized if we leave the planning to the transit professionals and the communities they serve—while checking the electoral politics at the door.


Jeff Mackey, Public Policy Coordinator