The Ontario government has committed to a generation-defining $28.5 billion New Subways Plan in the GTA. So why are we only discussing fares?

It’s been four years since critics first derided Doug Ford’s subways plans as “back of a napkin” planning. Those same plans are now backed by all levels of government, fully funded, with tunnel boring machines digging underneath in Toronto. That criticism appears to have gone underground as well.

Instead, affordability has taken centre stage in the 2022 campaign, with promises ranging from immediate relief, such as license plate fees and fuel tax reductions, to more complex proposals like auto insurance. On transit, the price of fares has dominated, with the Liberals and NDP both proposing new fare subsidies. While cheaper rides may pique our interest, is this the right discourse as we embark on the largest transit expansion in Ontario history?

Temporary Relief

In week one of the campaign, Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca revealed “Buck-a-ride”—the Ontario Liberals’ campaign promise to subsidize transit to $1 a ride until January 2024. Ontario Green Party leader Mike Schreiner made an earlier promise to cut fares by half for an initial three months. The NDP also promised two-hour flat rates and free transfers.

The Liberal proposal would cover farebox revenue losses for all transit agencies, on top of existing agreements to cover massive COVID losses and existing operating grants. It would be a subsidy in the billions per year for a service the public is using at historic lows. What happens in 2024 when the proposed program ends? Will transit agencies be on the hook to defend sudden, sharp increases in fares?

Cheaper rides may be a welcome, temporary relief, but it will not address service gaps or enhance experiences. It may help inequities, as we know bus trips were the most resilient during the pandemic, reflecting the inequity of transit in underserved areas. But those most in need of reduced fares are already eligible for discounts. Cheaper fares are also unlikely to increase ridership at a time when hybrid work and public health concerns drive decisions, as evidenced by OC Transpo’s month of free transit last December.

Transit riders will return when they need to return, gradually. The transit debate should focus on whether riders will return to a better, more interconnected transit network.

Political Consensus

In a region where endless debates have arrested transit development, perhaps there is finally consensus. The Ontario Liberal platform commits to “finish all transit plans already funded,” and lists every Ford transit project (including the napkin ones). The Ontario NDP—ever dependent on urban support—are decidedly silent on endorsing or rejecting the subways plan. The current discourse on fares has replaced Ontario’s time-honoured tradition of parties debating lines on a map.

The current plans in the GTHA have the Ontario Line, Yonge North Subway Extension, three-stop Scarborough Subway Extension, and the Eglinton Crosstown West Extension up and running by 2031. Riders will also soon board the Eglinton Crosstown LRT, the Finch West LRT, possibly SmartTrack, and enjoy automated train control on the TTC. As Metrolinx would say, “It’s Happening.”

Transit Effects on the Future of Work

The future of transit must also acknowledge the future of work. Companies are announcing flexible work schedules and hybrid work-from-home models that will change travel patterns. Are these large-scale transit projects still necessary?

On this question, the answer is decidedly yes. While ridership may recover gradually, the GTHA population will continue to grow and urban densities will intensify. As municipalities become more livable by replacing traffic lanes with sidewalks and bike trails, public transit becomes more essential.

An integrated, cohesive, and expanded transit network with future-proofed capacity is critical to a region’s long-term outlook. Whether commuting four days or five, travelling peak hours or off-peak, Ontarians will need viable alternatives to move between point A and point B.

Things to Consider

A spirited debate should consider the following:

  • How will government manage escalating project costs?
  • Is the P3 Public-Private-Partnership model still viable? Are we attracting the best bidders?
  • Will these projects overheat the skilled labour market? Can we manage multiple major civil projects at once?
  • Can our trusted public agencies deliver as promised?
  • Have we learned from the Crosstown LRT experience that has kept Eglinton Ave. under construction past its initial completion date?

It is a watershed moment for Ontario to have consensus on transit expansion and to be gaining momentum on progress. In this election, party leaders should discuss the many important challenges ahead to ensure the next government, no matter who is elected, can get it done.