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OPINION: Provincial transportation bill comes up short, says rail consultant

Toronto-centric subway spending bill is a “fantasy plan,” delivers nothing for Northern Ontario

By Greg Gormick

Opportunities lost.  That’s what the Getting Ontario Moving Act, coupled with the 2019 Ontario budget and a Toronto subway-building mania, mean to Northern Ontario’s transportation system.

To call this disappointing is an understatement.  Many of us in the industry had high hopes for this government when it was elected in 2018.  In Opposition, members such as Nipissing MPP, now Finance Minister, Vic Fedeli said all the right things and seemed sincere when they talked about the urgent need to improve Ontario’s strained and straining transportation system.  I didn’t doubt their sincerity.

But what has emerged is not just underwhelming, it’s dangerous.  If left unaltered, the moves being made – or not being made – will drive our increasingly dysfunctional transportation network to the point of no return.  This system is sick and in need of attention.

Northern comments have been swift and justified:  What’s in this for us?  That’s particularly the case after all the pre-election promises about improvements such as the return of the Toronto-Cochrane Northlander train, which was cut by the previous government in 2012.

Northerners shouldn’t feel they have been especially slighted.  The reaction from other regions has been similar, including the communities that ring the City of Toronto.  Calls for improved GO Transit regional rail and bus service have resulted in the same far-off promises and self-congratulatory photo-ops that characterized the previous government.

As for Torontonians, they haven’t come out so well, either.  They are being force-fed a fantasy plan wrapped around questionable mini-subway technology that is a hobby horse of Metrolinx advisor Michael Schabas.  It’s bizarre that this Conservative hireling was previously the Liberal advisor who concocted the derailed southwestern Ontario high-speed rail dream scheme.

Backing him is Metrolinx CEO Phil Verster, who left two high-profile UK jobs amid clouds of controversy before being hired by the Wynne government.  Verster told Ontario Northland execs last summer that a revived Northlander couldn’t use “his” Toronto Union Station.
While all this palace intrigue transpires, nothing practical is being done to improve Ontarians’ travel options.  One of the three theories I employ in all my transportation work is access + mobility = destiny.  I, therefore, question the impact of this on our destiny.

While Ontario’s regional mobility and access stagnate, other regions beyond Ontario’s borders are making solid progress by dispensing with the political posturing, game playing and axe-grinding, and getting on with practical, real-world plans.  A prime example is California.

That booming region is fast-tracking a train yard full of light, commuter and high-performance intercity rail projects at a reasonable cost using proven technologies to make the Golden State economically, socially and environmentally competitive.  That Los Angeles decimated its system in the post-Second World War era and is now aggressively restoring it provides a cautionary tale.  This is but one of many increasingly mobile regions with which Ontario must compete.

Using the working California example, there is no reason why Queen’s Park can’t stop the clock on what it is now attempting to unleash with its misnamed Getting Ontario Moving Act, which is currently being railroaded through the legislature at high speed.

For Northern Ontario, rethinking this policy is vital; it is noticeably light on attention for this region.  The simple fact is that if investors, workers, residents and tourists can’t easily get here from there, they won’t.

No amount of publicity, denial and political back-slapping can mask the fact that getting to, from and around Northern Ontario is difficult by any mode.  This legislation won’t change that.  The highways are often closed due to weather or serious accidents.  Air service is expensive and tenuous.  Rail and bus services are simply inadequate.

One person can do little when up against a political juggernaut barrelling down the wrong track for what one suspects is simply a lack of knowledge of the alternatives.  From my perspective, I can only hope my forthcoming Northeast Lynx rail passenger plan for northeastern Ontario will give the provincial government a direction they can adopt and implement at the earliest opportunity.  Much more is urgently required.

In addressing this legislation, NDP transportation critic Jennifer French struck a constructive note.  She said Ontario’s transportation system has long needed improvements based on common sense.  The Oshawa MPP added that we should welcome the opportunity to improve this legislation so it sets a new and better course, and she urged there be calm, reasoned and swift consultation with those who use, need and must rely on this system daily, namely individual Ontarians.

At the risk of becoming a bore, I say this again:  access + mobility = destiny.


Greg Gormick is a Southern Ontario-based transportation analyst and policy advisor.  His clients have included the TTC, Metrolinx, CP, CN, VIA and numerous elected officials and public agencies.  He currently serves on the Durham Region Transit Advisory Committee.