Governing the Construction of Transit Infrastructure in Toronto and Vancouver

Martin Horak, Department of Political Science, Western University

Relevance of the Practice

Over the past 20 years, provincial and federal governments have provided significant intergovernmental transfers to fund the development of new rapid transit infrastructure in Canada’s largest cities. This funding arose in part as a response to a lack of transit infrastructure development in the 1980s and 1990s, when Canadian cities grew significantly in population, but local fiscal constraints and the decline of intergovernmental transfers meant that development of transit infrastructure did not keep up. As noted in the Introduction to Local Responsibilities and Public Services, report section 2.1, Canada’s three largest city-regions – Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver – are composed of many municipalities. In these cities, then, the availability of new funds for rapid transit development brought with it the question of how to govern the construction of transit – that is, who decides what will get built where, and how? In each of these cities, many billions of dollars have been spent over the past 20 years building rapid transit and having an effective governance mechanism in place is essential to ensuring that the many environmental, economic and social benefits of stronger transit infrastructure are maximized in the long run, and that the money is not wasted on poorly planned, poorly managed, or short-sighted projects.

Description of the Practice

International experience suggests that the successful development of large-scale urban transit infrastructure requires a coordinating institution that can lead systematic planning and implementation at the metropolitan scale. However, neither Toronto nor Vancouver had such a body in place in the late 1990s. Toronto had no metropolitan-scale governing institutions at all. Instead, the local government landscape consisted of a large central municipality – the City of Toronto (population 2.9 million), which was the product of a provincially-imposed amalgamation in 1997 – surrounded by four two-tier ‘regional governments’, each with several constituent municipalities, housing another 3.5 million people in a sprawling suburban landscape. There was, and still is, no institutional connection between the central city and the surrounding two-tier suburban governments. Rapid transit infrastructure mainly consisted of two subway lines and municipalities ran their own individual public transit systems, and rapid transit infrastructure was limited – its main elements were two subway lines built in the 1960s in the City of Toronto, and a provincially owned regional commuter rail system.

Vancouver, by contrast, has had a multi-functional metropolitan authority since the late 1960s. Metro Vancouver (until recently the Greater Vancouver Regional District) is a cooperative metropolitan authority through which the 20 municipalities in the urban area voluntarily share several services, including water, sewer, waste management and regional planning. Until 1998, public transit was not locally managed at all. Rather, it was run directly by an agency of the provincial government, which had also built the only rapid transit line that existed at the time.

Since the late 1990s, the Ontario and British Columbia provincial governments have both established single-purpose, regional transit agencies to coordinate the construction and operation of regional transit services. Toronto’s Metrolinx was established in 2005. It took over operations of the suburban commuter rail system, and the provincial government committed to flow billions of dollars of funding through Metrolinx to build new transit infrastructure.[1] However, it did not take over operations of municipal transit systems, which carry the bulk of riders in the region,[2] and local governments retained control over planning and development approvals. At first, Metrolinx was governed by a board of representatives of area municipalities, but after several years chronic conflict on the board, the provincial government replaced this with a provincially appointed board.[3] The agency gets some operating revenues from commuter rail fares but depends on provincial funding for capital construction projects. Since 2005, Metrolinx has spent some CAD 27 billion (mostly of provincial funding, with about 10 per cent federal funding) building transit infrastructure.[4] The results to date include upgrades to the commuter rail system, an airport rail link and two suburban busways – but no completed projects in the core City of Toronto, where congestion is acute and more rapid transit would be particularly beneficial.

In Vancouver, the provincial government established TransLink in 1998. TransLink is institutionally stronger than Metrolinx, since it operates all transit in the Vancouver region, and it was also given access to some local sources of revenue beyond fares (specifically, a share of the gas tax and the property tax).[5] Like Metrolinx, it is tasked with planning and leading the construction of new rapid transit infrastructure. It is governed by a council of mayors from area municipalities, who are also involved in the governance of regional land use planning through Metro Vancouver. Even though TransLink has access to more sources of local revenue, its efforts to expand these revenue sources have come up against local political opposition, so the realization of new rapid transit projects has continued to rely heavily on intergovernmental funds, which have provided over 70 per cent of the approximately CAD 10 billion in capital investment in transit since 1998. The results of this investment include three completed urban rail lines that span both core and suburban areas of the region, with two more urban rail lines currently under development.

Assessment of the Practice

The effectiveness of Metrolinx and TransLink as institutional vehicles for transit development is very different. While new transit infrastructure has been built in both city-regions, in Vancouver the new infrastructure has been built largely in accordance with a long-range plan, whereas in Toronto – especially in the core City of Toronto – the development of rapid transit has been highly contentious, marked by frequent changes in plan and the repeated cancellation and deferral of major projects. The reasons why TransLink has been more effective than Metrolinx shed light on the importance of institutional design and local context in governing large-scale transit development. Of the two agencies, Metrolinx is institutionally weaker, since it relies entirely on yearly appropriations of capital funding from the provincial budget, rather than having access to general revenue sources. Just as importantly, it does not have authority over the operation of most public transit in the Toronto region, meaning that it must coordinate its plans and priorities with those of institutionally independent local authorities, most notably, the Toronto Transit Commission in the core City of Toronto. As a result of these institutional weaknesses, Metrolinx has remained an agent of the provincial government, and its investment choices reflect changing provincial political priorities, rather than being the product of a long-range, integrated transit plan that is supported by municipal political actors.

The most important reason for the different performance of the two agencies, however, is the different local and metropolitan political and institutional context in the two cases. In Toronto, a lack of regional political collaboration has led the provincial government to assume tight control over Metrolinx, and there is no comprehensive, integrated regional transit plan. In the core City of Toronto, local rapid transit plans have repeatedly become a political football, with successive mayors promoting radically different proposals, ranging from five new light rail lines (proposed under Mayor David Miller in 2007) to no new light rail and two new subway lines (proposed by Mayor Rob Ford in 2010).[6] In this context, Metrolinx has been able to realize some suburban transit projects, but important projects in the central city have repeatedly been delayed or even cancelled due to local political controversy. In Vancouver, by contrast, the existence of Metro Vancouver has, over the years, promoted a culture of regional policy collaboration, and a long-standing regional land use plan – complete with designated transit corridors – exists. This broader context gives TransLink a foundation of regional planning and political compromise that has helped it to systematically pursue construction of a regional transit system.[7]

This case comparison of nominally similar institutional innovations in Vancouver and Toronto shows that simply establishing a regional transit authority and providing it with funding by no means guarantees the effective development of rapid transit infrastructure. Rather, effectiveness depends significantly on two additional elements. First, it is affected by the institutional design of the agency – specifically, the extent to which it has control over relevant infrastructure, its own dedicated sources of revenue, and a governing body that features representation from important local actors. Second, agency performance (and indeed, the possibilities for institutional design) is shaped by the character of the pre-existing metropolitan context, specifically whether there is a history of regional collaboration, and whether a stable, locally supported vision for the future development of the transit system already exists.

References to Scientific and Non-Scientific Publications

Legal Documents:

The Metrolinx Act, Government of Ontario, Ontario Legislature 2006

The South Coast British Columbia Transportation Authority Act, Government of British Columbia 1999 (2021)

Scientific and Non-Scientific Publications:

Horak M, ‘State Rescaling in Practice: Urban Governance Reform in Toronto’ (2013) 6 Urban Research and Practice311

— — ‘Building Rapid Transit in Canada: The Problem of Governance’ in Francisco Velasco Caballero (ed), Anuario de Derecho Municipal 2020 (UAM Instituto de Derecho Local, forthcoming) Metrolinx, ‘2020-2021 Business Plan’ (2020)

[1] For detailed discussion, see Martin Horak, ‘State Rescaling in Practice: Urban Governance Reform in Toronto’ (2013) 6 Urban Research and Practice311.

[2] The Toronto Transit Commission (TTC), which operates in the central City of Toronto, is North America’s third busiest transit system, after New York City and Mexico City.

[3] The Metrolinx Act, Government of Ontario, Ontario Legislature 2006.

[4] Metrolinx, ‘2020-2021 Business Plan’ (2020).

[5] The South Coast British Columbia Transportation Authority Act, Government of British Columbia 1999 (2021).

[6] For a detailed discussion, see Martin Horak, ‘Building Rapid Transit in Canada: The Problem of Governance’ in Francisco Velasco Caballero (ed), Anuario de Derecho Municipal 2020 (UAM Instituto de Derecho Local, forthcoming).

[7] This is not to say that there has been no controversy or problems. Funding sources remain politically contentious, and the provincial government has consistently pushed for a more expensive rail technology than is necessary under the circumstances. Relatively speaking, however, the development of transit infrastructure in Vancouver has been much more orderly and systematic than in Toronto.