This week, the Toronto Region Board of Trade (BofT) updated its Superlinx proposal for a massive cross-regional transit service, responding to critics who worried that the structure of the proposal would mean a loss of local control over transit operations.

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

In November 2017, the BofT developed a concept paper that encouraged the Government of Ontario to expand the mandate of Metrolinx by uploading all transit services in the area to a new entity, which it's calling "Superlinx". The new agency would be similar to those in other large conurbations, such as Transport for London and Vancouver's Translink. The goal, the BofT said, was to finance and build transit lines more quickly, offering commuters a modern, seamless transit system.

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."

A MiWay bus discharges passengers at the TTC's Islington Station, image, James Bow, Transit Toronto

That's the rationale that inspired the board to originally develop its Superlinx plan. Its concept paper, Superlinx: An Uploading Strategy for a Modern Provincial Transit Agency (.pdf) stated 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 declared 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."

Now, apparently, the board has heard local voices and changed its mind. It has recommended alternative paths to creating a more regionalized transit system for the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area plus Guelph and the Region of Waterloo.

"We started a debate about how to organize, fund and build transit. While there’s been a lot of discussion since then, the situation for riders, businesses and transit agencies hasn’t changed, so we want to make sure we keep this debate alive until we address the... transit needs of our community," said Jan De Silva, the board's president and chief executive officer.

Buses from five transit agencies served Humber College's North Campus in 2013-14, image, Transit Toronto

In its latest discussion paper, the BofT acknowledges the concerns of several local critics of the original plan, including transit advocate Steve Munro, Toronto Star columnist Edward Keenan, and City of Toronto councillor Mike Layton. Now, the BofT proposes that Superlinx contract current municipal transit agencies such as the TTC, MiWay and Durham Region Transit, to deliver local transit. Under this new model, Ontario would no longer develop a single provincial transit agency by amalgamating services. Instead, the province would take over core financing of transit, while still allowing local councils to direct how their own transit agencies operate.

The Government of Ontario is already exploring options to 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 to developing a more sustainable funding model over time.

"We encourage Toronto City Hall to pursue the Premier’s offer to negotiate a subway upload as a solution to our decades long problem of woefully insufficient municipal financing for new transit and existing transit maintenance," said De Silva. "If there are conditions the City wants to set for a subway upload, in terms of planning, financial trade-offs, or other guarantees, then the appropriate first step is to ask the province for them. The wins for our City and our residents are in securing a superior funding model than exists today and fast-tracking the development of housing and transit to address the crisis facing our workforces."

De Silva notes that a proposed structure where the province funds transit capital but leaves transit operations to the city is no different from the structure both sides already agreed to for the Crosstown LRT line, which the province, through Metrolinx, is funding and building, but which the TTC will operate on contract.

A year after first proposing Superlinx, the board announced that 74 per cent of Torontonians who responded to a survey (.pdf) support the idea of a developing a super regional transit agency to oversee planning, building and operating both regional and transit services across a wide swath of central Ontario.

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 UrbanToronto 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.

After the board released the survey last November, UrbanToronto spoke with Brian Kelcy, the board's vice-president of public affairs and one of the authors of the Superlinx concept paper. He countered concerns about the loss of local control and 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. This week's revised Superlinx concept may reassure worriers—or not—but may also weaken the entire plan.

UrbanToronto also 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.

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

This week, the Board of Trade has also weighed in on Metrolinx' plans to integrate fares across the region. Metrolinx is considering a number of models including extra fares for rapid transit lines, fares by zone and fares by distance. The BofT says it opposes fare-by-distance models. It points to other potential regional fare models (like using zones and fare-capping) that would encourage suburban ridership but also avoid inequities for lower-income riders in those suburban areas.

The board is appealing to all governments to reconsider how they fund or build public transit. It's calling on

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