Canadians need real action on public transit

As transit activists and local politicians often remark, Canada is the only G8 nation without a national transit plan.

Despite an emerging realization among our elected officials that public transit is a key issue for millions of Canadians, far too many people remain stuck waiting for overcrowded buses or in cars in traffic because even subpar transit options aren’t available to them.

And so, the news that public transit funding was included in the 2015 federal budget led some mayors to express their optimism that help was finally on the way. Unfortunately, the federal government’s Public Transit Fund appears to be more smoke and mirrors than dollars and cents.

The government has promised to make new funds available through its PPP Canada crown corporation for cities’ major transit projects. The fund will make up to $250 million available in 2017-18, $500 million in 2018-19, and $1 billion in 2019-20 and years beyond. While new funds are welcomed, the way these funds will be dispersed limits their effectiveness at fixing our public transit problems.

The Public Transit Fund will require municipalities to enter into public-private partnerships (PPP) to be eligible for federal support. To date using a PPP approach to fund federal infrastructure projects has resulted in a fraction of agreed upon funds being released to actually fund projects. Going the PPP route also reduces the total amount of federal dollars available for a project. The federal government provides only 25 per cent of funds for PPP projects versus the 33 per cent they provide through traditional cost-sharing agreements with municipalities and provinces. 

What’s worse is that the budget gives no indication the government is willing to bank any of the debt required to fund PPP transit projects. Instead of direct cash transfers, municipalities and provinces could be forced into loans to cover the federal government’s share of the transit projects. In return, Ottawa would pay back their share of the loan and the interest over two or three decades with small annual payments.

When compared to the Ontario government’s recent commitments to fund transit infrastructure the Federal Public Transit Fund looks minuscule. Ontario itself is spending more on a Mississauga – Brampton LRT project ($1.6 billion) than the federal plan will invest in all of Canada. Ontario’s budget proposes $31.5 billion for transit and transportation over the next ten years.

Despite the big number, Ontario’s transit plan still leaves a number of crucial projects on the shelf waiting for future investment.  Toronto’s Relief Subway Line has been in plans since at least 1985 waiting for funding and approvals. If the federal government were interested in improving transit infrastructure in the country’s biggest city the relief line is one place it could start. So would pitching in to subsidize the operating costs of public transit to pay for more service on many overcapacity transit routes.

Metro Vancouver residents are currently voting on whether to support a 0.5% tax increase to fund a ten year $7.5 billion transit investment plan. This plan also depends on $3.5 billion worth of federal and provincial government funding. Whether the Public Transit Fund will be able to provide the funds Metro Vancouver’s transit plan needs is unclear. It is doubtful that the regions mayors’ anticipated carrying the debt the Public Transit Fund may add to their budgets.

While it is good that the federal government recognizes the need for federal investment in transit, this plan comes up short. At best the Public Transit Fund appears to be new minor source of funding for our nation’s overburdened transit systems. At worst it is a program that could download infrastructure debt onto municipalities and provinces while ignoring the day to day pressures facing our public transit systems.