• June 1, 2020

QP Briefing. Ford government cut transit spending by 40%, provincial watchdog finds

By Jack Hauen

The Doug Ford government is spending about $18.5 billion less on transit than the previous Liberal administration planned to over the next five years, according to a new report from Ontario’s fiscal watchdog.

That amounts to a 40 percent reduction in spending from the Liberals’ planned $47.7 billion to the PCs’ $29.2 billion, the Financial Accountability Office (FAO) found.

About half of that reduction comes from the government’s assumption, outlined in the 2019 budget, that about 17 percent of planned infrastructure spending will not actually be spent. The budget promised to stick to “a more realistic forecast of construction timelines.”

But the $9.4 billion the PCs have set aside in their transit capital spending makes up about 24 percent of total planned spending over the next five years, the FAO found.

“I would like to understand how they derived [the number],” Financial Accountability Officer Peter Weltman told reporters at Queen’s Park Thursday after the report’s release. He said his office didn’t have the time or resources to understand the “unusual” figure.

It’s not unrealistic to assume that there will be some underspending on capital projects, “but to actually go and put that up in the window like that … again, I want to see some fulsome analysis to support that $9.4 [billion],” Weltman said.

Even 17 percent is high, NDP Transit critic Jessica Bell said, adding that the Toronto Transit Commission’s assumption is closer to 10 percent. (The TTC did not respond to a request to confirm this figure.)

“What that tells me is that they are assuming the transit projects that are on the table right now will be significantly delayed,” she said.

A spokesperson for Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney said the funding cut means Ontario will be “in keeping with actual expenditure patterns” and will not affect timelines for project delivery.

“The province is planning to build four projects as part of Ontario’s new subway transit plan for the GTHA, with a total preliminary cost estimate of $28.5 billion,” Barbara Mottram said in a statement that was provided after this story was first published. She noted that the government’s plan is a 10-year one. “The FAO report only focuses on the first five years. This government is making significant investments in transit infrastructure and has a realistic plan to deliver.”

The government’s cancellation of a high-speed rail project in the Toronto-Windsor corridor, as well as axing two cents per litre from the gas tax transfer to municipalities made up most of the rest of the PCs’ reduction in transit spending.

Bell said that gas tax funding “should have gone to improving riders’ commutes across Ontario.”

Highway spending per capita will also be reduced to the lowest levels in 13 years, the FAO found, from $201 per person in 2018 to $139 by 2023 — though the report found the government’s plan exceeds the amount needed to maintain status quo service levels.

Weltman also raised questions about the government’s lack of performance indicators or goals relating to commute times.

The average car commute for drivers who work in Toronto is about 47 minutes, according to 2016 StatsCan data — some of the longest times in the country. The Ministry of Transportation provided the FAO with some performance metrics relating to transit ridership, trips taken, safety, etc. “And yet we’re not seeing anything that addresses, specifically, commute times,” Weltman said.

The C.D. Howe Institute has estimated the cost of lost productivity due to gridlock at up to $11 billion a year in Toronto.

“We currently do not have a target for commute times as part of the ministry’s key performance indicators,” Mottram said, noting that the Ministry of Transportation analyzes congestion levels on provincial highways using GPS information, and looks at StatsCan data on commute times. “There is generally a large regional variability in commuting time and commuting tolerance in a jurisdiction as large as Ontario. The same average length of commuting time may have a different meaning and explanation in a different regional context, which is why the ministry is not using this as a standardized metric for the province.”

The cancellation of Ontario’s cap-and-trade program and the repeal of the Trillium Trust Act led to over $1 billion in other reduced transportation spending, Weltman said — including cuts of $435 million to regional express rail, $178 million to electric vehicle incentives and $41 million to cycling infrastructure. The government didn’t say which programs specifically had been cut.

Green Leader Mike Schreiner said the Ford government is “closing its eyes” to the potential of the green economy by cutting electric vehicle subsidies.

“Building fast, modern, clean transportation is the best investment we can make in the future, creating jobs and combating the climate crisis,” he said. “Yet this premier continues to actively fight against the transition to a clean economy.”

The updated spending in the Fall Economic Statement, released last week, didn’t meaningfully impact the numbers in the FAO report, Weltman said.

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