Ontario voters go to the polls next week and their choice for the next provincial government will have a big impact on how Torontonians get around. This week Urban Toronto will feature interviews from all three major parties on transportation issues in the GTA.

Today the spotlight is on the Liberal government’s Minister of Transportation Kathleen Wynne. The Liberal platform on transit focuses on staying the course the government has laid out during its time in office, while also promising to introduce all day service to all of GO Transit’s rail lines.

Urban Toronto writer Adam Hawkins interviews Ontario Transportation Minister Kathleen Wynne, image by Craig White

Under the guidance of Metrolinx and its regional transportation plan, “The Big Move,” the government has funded several major projects, including a major renovation of Union Station, the Eglinton-Scarborough Crosstown Line, the Spadina subway extension, the Union-Pearson Air Rail Link and bus rapid transit projects in Mississauga and York Region. The government has also backed Presto, a farecard that will work across all transit agencies in the GTA.

As rapid transit infrastructure is built out in the 905, more and more transit trips are going to cross municipal borders. How is fare integration going to work between all these different transit agencies?

I see the Presto card as the mechanism for getting people to think regionally. And by people I mean individuals and the municipalities. Both of them are going to start thinking about themselves as part of a more regional system. We’re not at the point yet where we can talk about fare integration, but I think the public is going to ask those questions as they use the Presto card.

The path forward for a full rollout of Presto on the TTC is not clear. How close are you to reaching a solution?

We’ve reached an agreement about how the funding is going to work, so it’s just a matter of doing the implementation. I was very pleased that we were able to reach an agreement because obviously the TTC is critical to that regional approach. Without the City of Toronto being part of Presto, it’s a doughnut and it just doesn’t make any sense. In fact, it’s important to note that as we were implementing the Presto card, the other municipalities were saying “is Toronto going to get on board?” So that was an important domino.

What will be the timeline for full implementation on the TTC?

We are in the process of [working out the details] now. (In later email discussions the Minister’s representative confirmed a 2015 target for full rollout on the TTC).

It has been three years since Metrolinx released The Big Move. How would you describe your progress to date?

I think that we’ve done very well, considering that we’re playing catch up. We’ve made the biggest investment in a generation in transit. There were bound to be some bumps along the road but I think that we’ve done very well.

There are good successes that we’re going to see as a result of the investments that we’ve made. Coming to an agreement on the Eglinton-Scarborough Crosstown Line with the new mayor was a big hurdle to get over. And given that we’re over that, I’m feeling very confident. The Eglinton line really was the priority of Metrolinx and they were very clear about that from the beginning, that regional reach was very important. I know that there were people who were disappointed because the plan changed, but I think the reality is we risked losing the whole thing if we hadn’t been able to come to that agreement. So I’m feeling optimistic.

What changes do you think will have to be made in response to the cancelation of Transit City?

It’s a living document. As changes are made to it we’ll have to revisit the other component parts. But that’s why having a skills-based board at Metrolinx is really important. We’ve got a board that has the capacity to be able to work with that document and make sure it reflects the current realities.

How is your current relationship with Mayor Ford?

We’ve worked pretty closely together. We knew that as soon as he was elected there was going to have to be a discussion about the transit build in the city, and so we’ve worked fairly closely. With Karen Stintz and the TTC there’s a very solid working relationship.

The reality is that the mayor’s office doesn’t have a hands-on role in the building of the Eglinton line. And I think the mayor understands that building of the Sheppard line falls to the City. So I would say it’s a cordial working relationship.

Obviously I don’t see the world the same way as Mayor Ford, and our government doesn’t see the world the same way as Mayor Ford. I’m not going to pretend that we do, nobody would believe that. We don’t see the world necessarily the same way as the Federal government. But the reality is that we have to work with every level of government. And that’s why when people say to me “why did you go along with the changes to the transit plan” my response has to be that we had a new administration that was duly, democratically elected in Toronto, and it’s our responsibility to work with that local, democratic process.

I got into provincial politics because we had a provincial government that was not respecting the local democratic process and so it’s very critical to me that we do respect the political processes locally.

It seems like with transportation planning in the GTA, "tolls" are a dirty word that we dare not speak. Do you see a role for tolls to bring in revenue for transit expansion?

We have no plans to institute tolls on existing roads. Having said that, there is going to be a discussion about road pricing, about tools that we can use to fund ongoing transit building. Metrolinx is going to bring forward an investment strategy by spring of 2013. I have also spoken to some members of the board about perhaps beginning to have that discussion earlier. But we have to have a serious conversation about how we’re going to continue to make these investments in the future.

The NDP have committed to restoring the provincial portion of the TTC subsidy. Why haven't you made a similar promise?

What we’re willing to commit to is the continued expansion that we have envisioned. What’s not in the NDP platform is any commitment to capital expansion. So, of the $320 million a year in gas tax funding, the City of Toronto gets about half of that, $156 million. And we’re going to continue to forward that money to the City of Toronto. That’s operating and capital dollars. And on top of that we’re making the capital investments in the Spadina subway, the Air Rail Link, the Union Station renovation and the Eglinton line.

So there’s a lot of building that’s going on and I didn’t see any of that in the NDP platform, which is worrisome as a Torontonian. I think that people want to see a better network of transit in Toronto and in the GTHA. And the NDP doesn’t have any way of paying for their operating subsidy. They haven’t identified how they’re going to pay for anything in their platform. But secondly there’s no commitment to capital.

Why have you made the all-day GO train service the centrepiece of your transit platform?

When I was in Barrie to announce the fifth daily train I immediately got questions about what’s next: “What’s the next improvement going to be.” And often it’s a question about all-day, two-way. “What about weekend service?” And so it’s very clear to me that there’s an appetite for that kind of service around the GTHA. We’ve only got it on the Lakeshore line at this point and we need to now implement new frequencies, all day, and weekend service. We can’t snap our fingers and have that right away, but we are going to begin implementing that in 2012.

It moves it out of being just a commuter service to serving people who are going for recreation or for family or commuting to work or school at different times of the day.

It also allows people to go the other way. If you look at the highway now there are people coming out of downtown at 8 o’clock in the morning to go to work in Woodbridge. So we’ve got to take that into account too.

What about new road and expressway construction?

There are a couple of corridors that are important. We are extending the 407 east. That will be a new toll road, but the tolls will come to the provincial treasury and we will retain ownership of that road. We are also planning an extension of the 427 up past Vaughan.

And then there are the GTA West corridor and the Niagara-Burlington Mid-Peninsula area. We haven’t settled on a corridor [in Niagara] and there’s a lot of work that needs to be done in terms of other transit, other expansion of existing roads. We’re reluctant to build a new road if it’s not necessary. Which is why we pulled back on the Mid-Peninsula when we came into office, because we thought “let’s do a regional, integrated transit plan before we just decide that we’re going to build a road.”

I know our opposition, Mr. Hudak, is very keen on building the road. But he was part of the government that didn’t invest in transit and filled in the hole on Eglinton. He doesn’t believe in transit. And so it only follows that he’d be willing to jump into just building a road. So those are the road projects, apart from refurbishing and expanding the 400 and changing the service centres. There’s a lot of that work that is going on.

We are also going to invest in infrastructure for electric vehicles over the next decade to make sure that we can facilitate the usage of electric vehicles. We’re building plug-in infrastructure at our new GO parking lots so that people will have the option.

What are you doing to encourage active transportation?

I’m a real advocate of doing what we can to facilitate people walking or riding their bikes. In fact we’re paving the shoulders on some of our secondary highways. Highway 6 is the first one. But there are about six or seven projects across the province where we’ve already refurbished the road and we’re extending the road by a metre on each side. We’ll put a line down it and the signs will say “share the road.” It makes it safer for the cars and the bicycles. I would ultimately like to see us have a network of bike paths around the province, like the Route Verte in Quebec. It would be a combination of municipal bike trails and provincial trials and provincial bike paths. And we’re working towards that.