Governance: The third rail that powers integrated regional transit

David Quarmby, who designed the organization of Transport for London (TfL), could be considered a brave man for being willing to dip a toe into the Toronto region's contentious transit debates.

Quarmby was in Toronto at the invitation of the Neptis Foundation to give a talk on 9 April 2014 at the Toronto Region Board of Trade titled, Lessons from London: Delivering a Successful Regional Transportation System.[1] Many of those who attended his talk were inspired by Quarmby's account of how Greater London has successfully integrated its regional transit system. They appreciated his insight that "high-value, low-cost" initiatives, centred on traveller satisfaction and convenience, could transform the way people use and view public transit.

Thirteen years after the formation of TfL in 2000, Greater London has seen a spectacular transformation in how people move around the region - growth of 75 percent in bus use and of 35-40 percent in commuter rail travel and underground travel, and a decline of 10 percent in auto use - not to mention record high levels of traveller satisfaction.

During his visit, Quarmby was keen to dispel any idea there was only one correct way to build an integrated transit network. Toronto isn't London, he repeated, but he felt there were transferable ideas that might resonate or be worth exploring in our region. At the heart of it all, Quarmby said, is getting the governance right and using it well.

David Quarmby in Toronto with Christopher Hume and Michael Schabas (April 2014)

What does it mean to have good governance?

"What I advocated in Toronto is the need for a single organization with overall responsibility for all transportation in the GTHA," said Quarmby. "This [organization] would not only plan future investment, but commission and oversee the provision of transit services in the metro area... This is the key for getting an integrated transportation system for the GTA. And it must have political legitimacy, accountability to the communities it serves."[2]

TfL is under the direct control of the regionally elected mayor of Greater London, who takes the lead in prioritizing projects. TfL is responsible for the strategic planning of the "whole" transit network, including setting fares and specifying most routes and services.

Meanwhile, service delivery remains the responsibility of dozens of public and private operators across 32 boroughs and the City of London, which work to service specifications and performance standards set by TfL. For example, TfL sets routes and the service frequencies for bus transit, which is delivered by many separate companies. Bonus payments to the bus operators are linked to performance standards such as punctuality, cleanliness, and accurate customer information.[3]

In Greater London, TfL has political legitimacy because the elected London mayor is involved in its governance as chair of the Board, and sets the Transport Strategy. At Metrolinx, Toronto's regional transit agency, accountability lies first with a board (made up of non-politicians), and then the province. Moreover, unlike TfL, Metrolinx:

  • does not oversee major roads;
  • does not oversee the provision of transit services other than GO Transit;
  • does not set fares, except on GO services, and has yet to introduce an integrated fare system.

For example, it has responsibility for building the Eglinton Crosstown LRT, but will not operate it and may not set fares for travel on it.

What would accountable transit governance look like in the Toronto region?

Looking to Vancouver and beyond

Quarmby mentioned that TransLink, which is responsible for regional transportation in Greater Vancouver, was perhaps closest to the TfL model in North America. Since it was founded in 1999, Translink has been responsible for the planning and design of transportation, including roads, across 21 municipalities as well as operating and financing services such as buses, the SkyTrain, the West Coast Express, and HandyDart.

In 2007 British Columbia changed the structure of the Translink board, which had originally been headed by political representatives of the Greater Vancouver Regional District (now Metro Vancouver), to a system involving a provincially appointed board of non-politicians, with a Mayor's Council to approve long-term strategy and a Commissioner of Regional Transportation. This move away from a board made up solely of municipal political representatives has been seen as creating a disconnect from the region's political governance structure. A further review in 2013 that is now before the British Columbia legislature suggested simplifying the Translink governance and giving the Mayor's Council a clearer and more comprehensive oversight over the Board of Translink, making it more accountable.

Tellingly, the 2013 Translink review found that when it came to governance, "Canadian and U.S. agencies are not particularly useful comparators... In Canada, Metrolinx (Toronto) and l'Agence metropolitaine de transport AMT (Montreal) are both provincial government agencies. Beneath them are a large number of municipal transit systems and the overall structures are seen as inferior (even by some of the contacts in these areas) to what exists in Metro Vancouver."[4]

The review found leaders in transit governance systems in Europe: in Vienna and Stockholm, as well as in Greater London. In all these city-regions, accountability lay at the local or regional level - not with the national government, the state, or the province.

Vancouver's SkyTrain

An inglorious history

Governance can be a touchy subject in the fragmented Toronto region.

In a recent speech, Anne Golden described how in the mid 1990s she and the Task Force on the Future of the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) suggested a regional GTA government that "would make possible coordinated decision-making on regional matters, including regional planning and infrastructure development, including transportation."

"In the end, politics trumped reason," Golden recalled. "The new premier, Mr. [Mike] Harris, chose to amalgamate the six municipalities of Metro Toronto to create the new City of Toronto, and a Greater Toronto Services Board (GTSB) was set up [in 1998] instead of the Council we had proposed. The GTSB was made up of local politicians appointed by the respective councils. In reality, it had very little power other than responsibility for GO Transit. With the lack of political power, the GTSB ceased to exist in 2001 - a short and inglorious history."[5]

Metrolinx-TTC tension and a change in governance

Metrolinx started out with a board that included local political representatives, but in 2009, the board was restructured and all politicians were removed.

In his paper, Transportation Governance at the Crossroad: The Case of Toronto, Jean-Paul D. Addie of the Department of Geography, York University, described the change of the Metrolinx board as the outcome of the refusal of the TTC to cooperate with Metrolinx in the latter's early days.

 "Metrolinx staff protested in early 2009 that the TTC was acting as a barrier to integrated regional transit development by not committing to the region-wide Presto transit fare-card," wrote Addie. "In March 2009, Premier [Dalton] McGuinty restructured Metrolinx's board of directors - including the removal of Mayor David Miller - in an attempt to de-politicize the agency and move beyond the political impasse preventing transportation projects breaking ground."[6]

Too many cooks in the kitchen?

In a recent article in Novae Res Urbis, Dr. Enid Slack, Director of the Institute on Municipal Finance and Governance at the University of Toronto, and Dr. Zachary Spicer, a postdoctoral fellow, describe how the GTHA remains highly fragmented, with 26 single- or lower-tier municipalities and 4 regional municipalities of varying shapes and sizes, each with unique economic and demographic characteristics, challenges and political dynamics.

"No GTHA-wide governance body exists to enable planning and decision-making among these municipalities, and with the other orders of government," they write. "Metrolinx, a special-purpose agency created to plan the regional transportation network and operate the GO commuter network, has been hamstrung by a lack of financial tools and the absence of a regionally representative, accountable mechanism for GTHA decision-making."[7]

Without clarity on who leads planning or where authority lies, confusion may ensue. A case in point is the exercise under way on how to relieve the overburdened Yonge Subway line. The City of Toronto is studying a potential new subway route for a Downtown Relief Line. Meanwhile, Metrolinx is doing a wider "Regional Relief Strategy" to see what other options are available, including using GO Transit. York Region is part of this study, although it isn't clear whether their exercise is separate from that of Metrolinx. An argument has been made that the two bodies bring complementary perspectives to the issue, but the question remains: do we really need two organizations to solve one problem?

Planning with politics, or planning vs. politics?

In a speech to the Empire Club in April 2014, Metrolinx chair Robert Prichard spent some time talking about governance. He acknowledged that he is often asked why elected politicians don't sit on the board of Metrolinx to ensure public accountability to the GTHA's  municipalities. The short answer, he noted, was that the current Metrolinx charter does not allow them to. He said he thought it better to "clearly delineate and distinguish our role (in Metrolinx) as public servants from the ultimate decision-making authority of our municipal and provincial political masters."

"Let us focus with our staff on planning, analysis, evidence, operations and implementation.  Let politicians make the ultimate decisions which they are uniquely mandated and skilled to do," said Prichard.[8]

This approach is very different from that of the Greater London model described by Quarmby. In London, policy and planning are led by the mayor of Greater London with the expertise of TfL staff, and TfL is responsible for implementing the mayor's Transport Strategy. Because politics is fused with planning, there is little room for an adversarial relationship to emerge.

Transit schemes under the TfL model are also subject to rigorous cost:benefit analysis, with consideration of a wide range of alternatives, and the schemes offering the best value for money are, generally, the ones implemented.

A new proposal

Despite his views on the division of policy and politics, Prichard noted that Metrolinx has recommended a change to the board, not to add elected officials, but to make closer ties with its municipal partners. The proposal is to increase the Metrolinx board from 13 to 18 members. Six directors would be "appointed by the Province on the nomination of the municipalities, one from each of the six regions - Toronto, York, Durham, Hamilton, Peel and Halton."[9] However, these would probably not be elected politicians, but rather citizen participants. It is unclear how this change would alter the board dynamics.

Voting for change

During the Ontario provincial and municipal elections, there has been lots of talk of what to build and how to fund it, but there is little talk about the often-neglected issue of transportation governance. A quiet consensus is, however, emerging among some academics, researchers, and specialists that it may be time for the Toronto region to revisit the need for a structure rooted in local accountability in order to develop a truly integrated regional transit network. What that final form will look like is up for debate.

A recent new book entitled, Governance and Finance of Metropolitan Areas in Federal Systems,[10] edited by IMFG Director Enid Slack and Rupak Chattopadhyay, President and CEO of the Forum of Federations, shows that there are many ways to structure the governance of city-regions.

For now, it is enough to raise the question of governance. There are important questions that need to be asked, including what each provincial leader or mayoral candidate will do to bring the 416 and 905 together as one region to make transportation decisions that will benefit us all.


[2] Conversation with Neptis.
[3] Conversation with Neptis
[4] Translink Governance Review by Acuere Consulting, Silex Consulting Inc. and Steer Davies Gleave (March 2013)
[7] Slack E. & Spicer Z. "City: Too Big, Too Small." NRU Toronto. 4 April 2014: 4-5.
[10] Oxford University Press, 2013.