Seventy-four per cent of Torontonians who responded to a survey support the idea of a developing a super regional transit agency to oversee planning, building and operating both regional and local transit services across a wide swath of central Ontario.

That's according to the Toronto Region Board of Trade (BofT), which has just released the results of its recent survey (.pdf) of residents of the Greater Toronto and Hamilton area, Waterloo Region, and Guelph about its proposal for a super transit agency to operate all transit services in the area.

As Urban Toronto reported last November, the BofT has developed a concept paper that encourages the Government of Ontario to expand the mandate of Metrolinx by uploading all transit services in the area to new entity, which it's calling "Superlinx". The new cross-regional agency would be similar to those in other large conurbations, such as Transport for London and Vancouver's Translink. The goal, the BofT says, is to finance and build transit lines more quickly, offering commuters a modern, seamless transit system.

The board commissioned Environics Research to conduct the survey. Environics worked with an on-line sample-panel provider to reach out to what it calls "a representative group of Ontarians, according to census population distribution". BofT officials explained to Urban Toronto that "Because it is an online sample, it is not 'random' in the same sense that a telephone sample is considered, but respondents were drawn randomly from a larger pool of residents."

Results of the Board of Trade poll on the Superlinx plan, image, Board of Trade

The team polled 1,000 adults across the area; 27 percent of them from the 18-34 age group, 35 percent from the 35 to 54 group and 38 percent 55 years of age or older. Of this total, 43 percent own a car; 35 percent have two cars; ten percent have three or more cars; and just 13 percent have no car. But, even more important, 50 percent of the survey participants regularly ride public transit.

While the poll determined a moderate level of satisfaction for local transit services, respondents also indicated an equally moderate enthusiasm for the Superlinx plan. People in Peel Region had the highest opinion of local transit at 79 per cent of respondents, while people in Toronto and York Region had the lowest opinion--59 and 55 percent respectively. Perhaps not surprisingly, York residents demonstrated the highest level of support for the Superlinx concept—89 per cent of York respondents agreed with the proposal, while Hamiltonians were the least interested in it—just 65 percent of them approved. However, in fact, 79 per cent of regional respondents supported the concept of a single regional transit agency funded by the provincial government.

According to the BofT, "Toronto is one of the fastest growing metropolitan areas in North America, a vibrant, global city, consistently ranking among the world’s top cities for quality of life. However, once deemed an enviable strength, the region’s transit system has become a significant weakness. Congestion is getting worse as more residents commute regionally across multiple lines. We require a regional transit agency with the authority to integrate the one million residents who have moved into the region over the past 10 years, and the millions more arriving in the coming decade."

Profile of the who participated in the Board of Trade's poll, image, Board of Trade

That's the rationale that inspired the Bof T to develop its Superlinx plan. Its concept paper, Superlinx: An Uploading Strategy for a Modern Provincial Transit Agency (.pdf) states that the "Superlinx agency will have authority over transit planning, operations, expansion and asset management. Consolidation will allow the agency to improve services, find efficiencies and maximize the value of its assets." The report's authors declare that this "proposal also has the virtue of simplicity, avoiding the co-ordination problems created by partial uploads of only planning authority or rapid transit lines."

The survey comes at a time when the Government of Ontario is exploring options to do just that—upload Toronto’s subway system, but only the subways—as it promised during the 2018 provincial election. The Board supports a subway upload only as a first step leading developing a more regional model over time.

"We’ve spent twenty years urging the province to move growth revenues, financing capacity and planning authority down to cities to get transit built faster, and it hasn’t worked," said Jan De Silva, President and chief executive officer of the board. "It’s time to try to upload transit responsibility to the province instead, since that’s where growth revenues, planning authority, and financing capacity already exist."

The BofT claims that Superlinx would transform transit in our region, leading to numerous benefits for riders, taxpayers and governments, integrating fares and schedules. However, municipal politicians and transit activists worry about losing local control over where transit services go and how frequently service is available.

In an article by transportation writer Ben Spurr, the Toronto Star quoted Toronto Councillor Gord Perks who exclaimed when the BofT originally revealed its plan last year, "I don’t see for the life of me why someone appointed by the province of Ontario should be deciding on the frequency of the Dufferin bus."

Model of proposed Superlinx board of directors, image Board of Trade

Brian Kelcy, the board's vice-president of public affairs and one of the authors of the Superlinx concept paper, countered concerns about the loss of local control. He said that when he spoke with people around the region about the proposal, they reacted in opposite ways, depending on where they lived. While Torontonians were concerned about losing control of transit to other areas of the province, people outside Toronto worried about losing control to Toronto.

In terms of the structure of the Superlinx board, the BoT proposes that "at least half of all of its members will be independent, non‐executive directors (INEDs). These directors would include business leaders and transit experts, as well as representatives of private capital who invest in the agency’s commercialization efforts." The remaining positions would be appointees from the provincial and municipal governments, with most being from the province.

Superlinx would be responsible for all public transportation in the large geographical area combining the "census metropolitan areas" (CMAs) of Guelph, Hamilton, Kitchener-Waterloo-Cambridge, Oshawa and Toronto. (Statistics Canada defines a CMA as an "area consisting of one or more neighbouring municipalities situated around a core. A census metropolitan area must have a total population of at least 100,000 of which 50,000 or more live in the core.")

Urban Toronto asked Kelcey why the Superlinx realm wouldn't include other nearby areas, for example, the rest of Niagara Region, Barrie and northern Durham Region. He said that the Board of Trade had defined the Superlinx area due to its many years of observing vehicle and goods movements throughout the zone. He did admit that some early models of the Superlinx zone contained these adjacent areas, which, in most cases, are already receiving GO Transit train service or will be welcoming GO trains in a few years.

The Superlinx zone would include a large area in Central Ontario, image, Board of Trade

A final point about polls. In September, 2017, TTC staff reported (.pdf) the results of the agency's latest customer satisfaction survey. They declared that the "high perceptions of overall customer satisfaction with the TTC" (82 percent) continued and were in line with previous results." (BofT pegs the Toronto satisfaction level with local transit at only 59 percent.) On the other hand, earlier this year, the City of Hamilton surveyed more than 22,000 residents by telephone and on-line to help the city better understand the needs and perceptions of its clients. Just 39 percent rated their local transit service as "good" or better—this is a lot lower than the 66 percent satisfaction rate that the BoT survey determined for Hamilton.

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