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Grappling with gridlock

by Brad Latta

In September 2001, the Government of Ontario announced a 10-year, $9 billion plan to fund capital projects for public transit. Premier Harris, speaking to Brampton's Board of Trade, cited unprecedented growth, traffic gridlock and pollution as the main reasons behind the decision. He went on to suggest that, "solving the problem may mean rethinking not only how transit should be managed, but also who should manage it." He added that the government expected private sector money to enhance the public sector contribution.

But questions of how, when and where remained unanswered leading to speculation that the Premier was alluding to increased use of public-private partnerships (P3s) to fund new highway and public transit projects. In truth, a great deal isn't known about his plan.

Just ask federal Transport Minister David Collenette, whose department appears to have been caught off guard by Harris' call for the federal government to kick in $3 billion dollars of the total $9 billion, at the rate of $300 million annually. In a statement shortly afterwards, Collenette proposed a meeting with his Ontario counterpart and indicated his government "might" consider contributing $380 million over the next five years.

Ontario's cash-strapped municipalities, expected to contribute $3 billion to the plan, haven't said much. On the surface, the plan sounds interesting - they will be asked to cover one-third of transit capital costs, not the 100 percent they are currently responsible for. But like everybody else, municipal leaders wait for specifics and as a Ministry of Transport spokesperson recently said: "There have been no specifics. Everybody is being advised to stay tuned."

This much is known: Ontario, particularly the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) and neighbouring communities, desperately need a solution to gridlock. Daily, there are an estimated 7.2 million trips by car in the GTA - one million more than just five years ago. Neighbouring communities feed vehicles into that system at an increasing rate and are now experiencing intercommunity problems of their own.

"Solving present and worsening gridlock in the Toronto area has been a political priority for several years," says Dr. Gordon Chong, chairman of Ontario's Greater Toronto Services Board (GTSB).

Created in January 1999, the GTSB was responsible for overseeing GO Transit and addressing transportation issues in the GTA and the Region of Hamilton-Wentworth. GO Transit, while not the cure, helps alleviate the transit problem by running 158 train trips and 1,267 bus trips daily, carrying approximately 160,000 passengers on a typical weekday - 130,000 on trains and 30,000 on buses. The utility claims its ridership displaces almost one billion automobile kilometres per year, avoiding the need for an additional 48 lanes of highway.

But, due largely to tremendous growth, the problem of excessive traffic and pollution moved beyond the GTA to stretch from Oshawa to Niagara Falls. Now Ontario plans to take back responsibility for GO Transit and create a new operating authority to coordinate services across regions. In the process, the GTSB has been put on notice: its days are numbered. But just a few days before the announcement, Chong was under no illusions about of the gravity of the situation and the need for another approach. "There is an $800 million shortfall in annual funding for roads and public transit in the GTA and the GTSB is investigating ways in which to make up the shortfall. Government won't or can't come across with all the money to fund transit. We are in the process of educating our members on P3s."

The GTSB, including mayors and other municipal officials from across the GTA, met with John Casola and Stephen Martin, representatives of PricewaterhouseCoopers to gain an understanding from sharing some practical applications and lessons learned from actual P3s like the London (UK) Underground and Ontario's Highway 407.

Highway 407 spans the top of the GTA, from Pickering to Burlington - 108 kilometres. Begun in 1993 by a new Crown agency working in partnership with the private sector, it opened four years later as the world's first all-electronic, open access toll highway. Using electronic transponders and cameras to record licence-plate numbers, it registers tolls at a rate of 11 cents per kilometre. Traffic volume, averaging 263,000 workday trips each month, is increasing steadily.

Today, Highway 407 is owned, operated and managed by 407 International Inc., a consortium of three private sector companies. While the road has yet to make a profit, its financial position is improving with more favourable financing and ever-increasing traffic. Given its apparent success, perhaps Premier Harris had Highway 407 in mind when he referred to the need for more private sector money to enhance the public sector contribution. Provincial transportation officials, according to the Ottawa Citizen, recently confirmed that Ontario could save billions of dollars by having the private sector build and operate toll roads.

Premier Harris also spoke of a two-pronged approach, "a coordinated plan that will make sure our highways and transit systems can handle the growing number of commuters."

No doubt the private sector has ideas on how it could contribute to transit systems. But in considering these ideas, the government has a responsibility that it must not ignore. According to Chong, "When it comes to [P3s], the critical question is: How do you protect the public interest and ensure that the public sector remains in the driver's seat?"

In the Toronto area, several proposed projects may now get a closer look: the extension of the Spadina subway line to York University and the Region of York/City of Vaughan, including the development of a public transit hub at Highways 7 and 400; the extension of the Shepherd Avenue subway line east to the Scarborough Town Centre; and the proposed rail link between the Toronto Pearson Airport and Union Station. Now that the province has committed itself to increased funding and a more active role in renewing and expanding public transit, are these or any other projects more likely to be carried out as P3s?

Potentially, says Martin. "P3s represent one option for dealing with the significant investment requirements associated with public transit. However, I think that the province would want to clearly understand what the specific transit needs are for various regions and what objectives need to be achieved, prior to assessing whether P3s represent the most appropriate solution."

Stay tuned.

Brad Latta is a freelance writer based in Ottawa.



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