Transportation and Land Use Planning for the GTA
The Greater Toronto Area’s worsening traffic congestion has become a major frustration for individuals and a drag on the region’s economic productivity. But the problem also has direct impacts on the environment and the ecosystem, especially on air quality and land use. In response to congestion, yet more highways, interchanges and other infrastructure are constructed, not only consuming large quantities of land, but also promoting still more urban sprawl. Urban sprawl has been the forerunner to traffic congestion, and the two phenomena have worked together in a vicious cycle to accelerate the paving over of much of the Greater Toronto Area, including vast acreages of Class 1 agricultural lands and important headwater areas for streams and rivers flowing into Lake Ontario. Population growth has been particularly rapid in the GTA’s suburban regions and, unfortunately, has taken place without the Ministry of Transportation’s insisting on coordinated transit planning. Car- dependent commuters created the pressure for a new highway ring to the north, the 407 Highway, which in turn has spurred further low-density development, placing intense development pressures today on the Oak Ridges Moraine and on its forests, groundwater and wildlife habitats.
Most experts predict that traffic congestion in the GTA will get a lot worse during the next decade. Demographic trends suggest that the population of the region will grow by another million to about five million people, and that new residents increasingly will settle in the suburban areas, where low- density development dictates that only rudimentary public transit will be feasible. In the past, the traditional “suburbs to downtown” commuting pattern has been relatively well-served by public transit. Increasingly, however, commuters will be traveling from one suburban area to another, relying overwhelmingly on cars, and lengthy commuting times will continue to degrade the quality of life. But the alternative to cars – public transit – is also under pressure in the GTA. GO Transit cannot meet total current demand, which is predicted to double by 2021.
|Vehicles and Air Pollution|
|The air emissions of the transportation sector in the Greater Toronto Area are hard to ignore. Smog is a growing concern for the GTA, and road vehicles are important sources of the precursor chemicals that help to form smog. According to the Ministry of the Environment, the transportation sector is responsible for an estimated 60 per cent of Ontario's nitrogen oxide (Nox) emissions and over 30 per cent of its volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions. Ground-level ozone peaks are typically higher in Toronto than in Vancouver or Montreal. Carbon monoxide (CO) levels also tend to be higher than elsewhere in Ontario because of vehicle emissions. A 1990 City of Toronto study that looked at air pollutants at "nose level" on a number of city streets found that concentrations of CO and NOx closely followed patterns of hourly traffic volume, suggesting that Toronto itself is the origin of most of its CO and NOx pollution. Transportation emissions also have global environmental impacts since they are major contributers to greenhouse gases, accounting for approximately one-third of Ontario's total emissions.|
What is Being Done: Short-term Actions
Several GTA capital expansion projects are currently under way or committed, including Highway 407 and the construction of the Sheppard subway from Yonge Street to Don Mills Road, as well as certain highway widenings and regional road improvements. However, an August 1999 study based on MTO’s data and analysis concludes that these committed expansion projects won’t be enough to address the needs of the GTA population in the year 2021. The study concludes that by then a projected 12 per cent increase in road lane-kilometres will be significantly outpaced by a predicted 59 per cent increase in vehicle-kilometres. Also by that time, major corridor deficiencies will be evident throughout the GTA, particularly those corridors in the central area and crossing City of Toronto borders, resulting in significant increases in congestion and travel times.
In a January 2001 news release, MTO indicated that it has spent over $1 billion to improve transportation in Toronto since 1998. Most of this funding ($829 million) was a July 1998 payment toward the Toronto Transit Commission’s capital plan, primarily to build the Sheppard subway extension and to help rehabilitate the system and improve safety. GO Transit in the Toronto area also received a $53 million allocation. As well, $134 million of provincial spending went toward rehabilitating and upgrading provincial highways in the Toronto area.
With regard to future plans for funding transportation in the GTA, the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing told GTA municipal leaders in September 2000 that transit projects would be eligible for funding from the province’s Superbuild program, if municipalities could make a convincing case that such projects were top priorities. However, four months later, in January 2001, the Minister of Transportation stated at a news conference that funding commitments for the GTA had been met, and that there would be no new funding for public transit in Toronto beyond those commitments.
The province also reiterated in March 2001 that it does not intend to share provincial fuel tax revenues with GTA municipalities to fund transportation solutions such as public transit, although this approach is used in British Columbia, Alberta and Quebec. GTA municipalities had been hoping for such support, since their municipal transit services regularly face budget pressures that force them to consider either fare increases or service cuts.
Explicit agreements on cooperation between levels of government seem out of reach in a climate in which the province is reducing its role and municipalities lack the explicit power to tax gasoline or car drivers to raise money for transit. This is a critical problem for the GTA, since very long lead times are typically needed to build transportation infrastructure, even after all approvals are given and funding is committed. For example, the Sheppard subway construction project was announced by the province in early 1993, and official groundbreaking took place in June 1994. Construction of the 6.4 km line is still under way and scheduled for completion in 2002.
There is broad agreement that improvement and expansion of the regional transit system will be particularly critical to the future of the GTA, not only because of public transit’s lower environmental impact, but also because options for road widening are very limited in the built-up portions of the GTA. Various studies and expert bodies have pointed out that the GTA needs a vast array of transit improvements, ranging from integrating the numerous transit systems in the region to establisihng transit corridors with separate rights of way, which would allow phased introduction of buses, high occupancy vehicle lanes, and, potentially, streetcars, subways or trains.
Transportation Demand Management (TDM) is also frequently invoked as a way of controlling the related syndromes of sprawl and congestion. TDM is essentially a coordinated effort by governments to reduce car use, especially during rush hours, by encouraging a full range of activities, from telecommuting and flexible work hours through cycling, walking, transit and car-pooling. TDM has great potential in areas like the GTA, where there is little space to add or widen roads, even if money were available. It can be an excellent way to wring the maximum efficiency out of existing infrastructure, and experts project that an aggressive TDM program could significantly reduce the growth in car use in the GTA.
Unfortunately, TDM is languishing in the GTA and elsewhere in Ontario, because it can’t work without excellent coordination and cooperation between levels of government, transit bodies and other agencies. MTO and other provincial ministries have provided little or no support for TDM in recent years. The concept is not mentioned even in passing in recent Business Plans of the Ministry of Transportation. Programs encouraging car-pooling are a key element of TDM, and although the Ministry of Transportation used to operate such a program for the public through its Web site, the ministry ended the program in the summer of 2000 without providing notice or explanation to the public. MTO does help its own staff identify car pool partners through an electronic bulletin board, but this gesture cannot begin to address the need for leadership on TDM. Although the Ministry of the Environment established a working group on Transportation Demand Management in 1997 as part of its Anti-Smog Action Plan, the ministry reported that, three years later, there has been no progress on this issue.
Ride-sharing on the roads between cities is a natural extension of urban car-pooling and provides the same environmental benefits, reducing both vehicle emissions and the pressure to expand high- ways. A number of small companies had been coordinating ride-sharing between Ontario cities. But, again, MTO has no policies or programs in place to encourage such commercial operations. On the contrary, rulings in the summer of 2000 by the Ontario Highway Transport Board have sent strong chilling signals, by effectively shutting down several small companies and fining them thousands of dollars, following complaints by major inter-city bus operators. Passenger safety concerns were also heightened after a serious van accident in July 2000. The Public Vehicles Act regulates such operations, but some observers say its language effectively prohibits small commercial operators. One Ontario MPP has asked the Minister of Transportation to amend this section of the Act in order to encourage the concept of ride-sharing, while still regulating passenger safety in small commercial vans. While this type of amendment does appear to have merit, the Public Vehicles Act – and the Ministry of Transportation – are not subject to applications for review under the Environmental Bill of Rights.
MTO’s Responsibility for Planning
MTO has for many years had the lead provincial role in long-range transportation planning, and according to its 2000/2001 Business Plan, MTO still considers planning to be part of its core business. A recent example includes the ministry’s decision on a long-range transportation planning study for Southwestern Ontario, which was posted on the Environmental Registry in November 2000.
MTO does monitor and evaluate regional transportation trends, but the information appears to be intended primarily for internal technical staff, and is not readily accessible to members of the public wanting to comment on transportation planning issues. For example, MTO is a funding partner in a telephone survey that is carried out every five years in the GTA and surrounding regions. The survey is managed by the University of Toronto and assesses household travel patterns. MTO and other funding partners use the data in transportation planning studies. The ministry also carries out periodic congestion surveys on GTA highways and collects traffic counts and vehicle occupancy information. MTO also provides modest funding to other agencies that collect and analyse certain data.
For example in 2000, MTO provided $20,000 to the Canadian Urban Transit Association to collect, analyse and publish data on Ontario municipal transit systems for the year 1999. The data include financial information such as revenues, expenditures and service statistics. Under another initiative, the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing is beginning to monitor the performance of municipal transit systems through the Municipal Performance Measurement Program. This program requires municipalities to submit the number of transit trips per person in their service area, and the operating costs per passenger trip.
Who is responsible for GTA transportation planning?
Despite stated corporate commitments to planning, MTO appears to be refusing to take a leader- ship role on planning for the GTA. Over the past several years, MTO has failed to articulate the looming GTA transportation problems for Ontario decision-makers or the Ontario public, and has not assigned the issue any kind of priority within MTO Business Plans. Instead, these Business Plans show that MTO’s top priority for the past three years has been road safety. MTO’s 2000/2001 Business Plan includes only a passing reference to the GTA:
- “To plan for the future and to ensure that Ontario’s transportation system meets our needs for economic competitiveness and safety, the ministry will work in partnership with other jurisdictions to develop strategic trade corridors and gateways that address congestion in the GTA and other urban areas.”
For the last three years, MTO Business Plans have set the ministry only one target relevant to transportation policy and planning: “to ensure that 90 per cent of the population live within 10 kilometres of a major provincial highway corridor.” This target is meaningless as a measure of congestion, and completely ignores the crucial role that public transit must play in GTA transportation solutions.
Transfer of Transportation Planning to the Greater Toronto Services Board
During 1998 and earlier, MTO worked on an internal project called the GTA Transportation Planning Process. But in the summer of 1999, MTO quietly transferred this major responsibility to the newly formed Greater Toronto Services Board (GTSB). The GTSB was established by the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing to assist the 30 municipalities within the GTA to work cooperatively to provide area-wide services and integrated infrastructure.
MMAH and MTO have provided the ECO with conflicting descriptions of how responsibilities are now divided between MTO and the GTSB. MMAH states “that the government did not transfer responsibility for overall GTA transportation planning to the GTSB.” MMAH also states that GO Transit “is the only area of transit planning for which the Board has responsibility at the present time.” But MTO has informed the ECO that in the GTA, the ministry is responsible for planning and policies related to the provincial highway network, implying that the ministry’s responsibilities do not include transit planning or overall planning coordination. MTO has explained to the ECO that “In addition, the Greater Toronto Services Board was given the responsibility for the operation of an overall network planning for transportation planning among the GTSB’s constituent municipalities...... Prior to the creation of the GTSB, the Ministry did often act in a co-ordinating role when there were inter-regional initiatives.” MTO’s recent Business Plans provide another clue that the ministry’s mandate seems to have been reduced. MTO’s 1999/2000 Business Plan stated that “Our policy interests, however, are broader than highways. We are the province’s window to the overall transportation system.” The following year, this message had vanished from the ministry’s Business Plan. Based on information provided by the ministries, the ECO is unable to determine which agency – if any – is responsible for integrated transportation planning in the GTA.
If the transfer of GTA transportation planning responsibility did take place, then MTO did not inform the public, either by a news release or a notice on the Environmental Registry. This lack of transparency in decision-making is not in keeping with the intent of the EBR.
Beyond the poor transparency, the ECO has several other concerns with a transfer of responsibility for GTA transportation to the GTSB. This would effectively transfer a core ministry responsibility with significant environmental implications to an agency that is not prescribed by the EBR. This means that Ontarians would lose their legal rights to be informed of and to comment on environmentally significant proposals related to GTA transportation planning. MTO had explicitly assured ECO in late 1998 that “alternative service delivery systems for programs and policies subject to EBR are developed in accordance with the requirements of the legislation.” The ministry also told the ECO that “MTO ensures that standards in key areas such as the environment and safety remain in effect by maintaining responsibility for policy development and standard setting.” Relinquishing responsibility for GTA transportation planning would ignore those commitments.
The Greater Toronto Services Board is governed by the GTSB Act, which, in contrast to the EBR, provides scant direction on environmental decision-making. The GTSB Act merely states that “the Board shall have regard to the diverse cultural, environmental and economic character of communities within the GTA” and “shall have regard to policy statements issued under the Planning Act.” The GTSB Act does set out some public consultation requirements for the Board, but they are more limited than those provided by the EBR.
The GTA Transportation Planning Process was transferred from MTO to the GTSB with very limited coordination. MTO did agree to pass its unpublished technical information over to the Board, but there were no other significant interactions or meetings between the agencies. Since then, MTO has had very limited dealings with the GTSB, which has been preparing a Strategic Transportation Plan for the GTA. The GTSB finalized its document, entitled “Removing Roadblocks,” in June 2000, but MTO has not provided any response to the plan. The Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing, which created the GTSB, had only an extremely minor role in the development of the plan.
Constraints on the GTSB
A number of resource constraints have made it very difficult for the Board to carry out effectively the huge task of transportation planning for the GTA. The Board operated with a staff complement of four persons during its first year of existence, during which time it was handed this responsibility. These staff included an executive director, a director of research and policy, an office administrator and a secretary. In addition to overseeing the work of transportation planning consultants, their job in 1999 was also to launch the Board’s activities across a very broad mandate, including GTA-wide coordination of economic development, tourism, social assistance and social housing; to provide advice and support to Board members on four standing committees and two special committees; and to help a seven-member board reporting to the GTSB to take on operational control of GO Transit beginning in August 1999.
To undertake effective transportation planning for the GTA, active participation of a wide range of stakeholders is required. Most experts assert that massive infrastructure investments are needed, thus dictating the active participation and support of all three levels of government. Indeed, a report prepared for the GTSB in 1999 identified a transportation funding shortfall of $800 million annually. The Greater Toronto Services Board has no funding capacity of its own for this purpose, and is explicitly prohibited from imposing fees or charges, incurring debts, or making investments. Moreover, the Board’s membership is composed of 30 municipalities which have widely varying transportation priorities, challenges and long-term goals, and which may find themselves on opposite sides of many issues.
By the beginning of 2001, there was widespread frustration with the jurisdictional impasse on GTA transportation planning. Many observers, from transportation consultants to municipal councillors to Ontario’s Premier, commented that the Board is not able to function as an effective coordinating agency under its current legislative mandate. Even the new Chair of the Board, Gordon Chong, used his first public meeting to challenge the province to focus on the GTA, and to provide funds and expertise within six months to address the region’s transportation problems – or see the Board disband.
Most Ontarians assume that the Ministry of Transportation continues to have the lead responsibility for transportation planning in Ontario. Provincial leadership is clearly needed to address the large implications of transportation planning decisions for Ontario’s environment. Individual municipalties, or even groups of municipalities, cannot adequately deal with transportation impacts region wide on either air quality or loss of remaining farmlands and natural areas.
However, MTO has not been providing that badly needed leadership, and, especially in the GTA, i does not appear that any agency is in charge of this mandate. The ministry’s response to traffic congestion has been to focus on a program of highway expansion, which in fact exacerbates the problems of air pollution and urban sprawl, and at best only delays future intensified traffic congestion The ministry no longer supports municipal public transit systems, and gives almost no attention to Transportation Demand Management.
Although there are conflicting messages from the ministries, it appears that MTO has, without an announcement or public consultation, shed its responsibility for long-range transportation planning in the GTA, and has handed the role to the GTSB, a new agency which, virtually all observers agree is ill-equipped to meet this responsibility, lacking both an explicit mandate and fund-raising powers MTO’s long-range transportation planning for other parts of the province is carried out through Needs Assessments. MTO has committed (in June 2001) to notifying the public about these Need Assessments by posting information notices on the Environmental Registry. But this approach is no enough to allow real public involvement in the ministry’s decision-making, as contemplated under the EBR. The ECO encourages MTO to solicit public input on its Needs Assessments by posting regular proposal notices with public comment periods.
The Ministry of Transportation needs to consider seriously how it will begin to meet its obligation to environmental protection and to public consultation under the Environmental Bill of Rights.
The ECO recommends that:
|This is an article from the 2000/01 Annual Report to the Legislature from the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario.|
Citing This Article
Environmental Commissioner of Ontario. 2001. "Transportation and Land Use Planning for the GTA." Having Regard, ECO Annual Report, 2000-01. Toronto, ON : Environmental Commissioner of Ontario. 57-64.