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Tory's Toronto

Metro's Matt Elliott, formerly of Ford For Toronto, keeps the light shining on Mayor John Tory's city hall.

How the UP Express threatens public trust in Toronto transit

The UP Express was supposed to carry 5,000 riders a day by June 2016. Actual ridership as of December was less than half that.

Torstar News Service

Here’s a short list of things that happened shortly after provincial transit agency Metrolinx announced that — whoops, our bad — the fare price of their Union-Pearson Express rail line was set too high.

First, the union representing TTC workers called for a public inquiry into Metrolinx, suggesting the mea culpa on the airport line was proof the agency can’t manage projects. Union head Bob Kinnear, who has long opposed Metrolinx’s plans to design, build and potentially operate new transit lines through public-private partnerships, called the experience a “fiasco.”

Second, Options for Davenport, a community group fighting tooth and nail against a plan to build a rail overpass through their neighbourhood, put out a release claiming botched UP Express ridership estimates raised “red flags” about Metrolinx’s work in their community.

Third, Peter Shawn Taylor, an LRT opponent from all the way down in Kitchener-Waterloo, penned an op-ed for the Waterloo Region Record, directly conflating the UP Express with the LRT planned for his neck of the woods.

“Like the Union Pearson Express, our LRT was a political pipe dream made in the absence of a strong business case,” he wrote.

Expect a whole lot more of this.

Because more than just offering a ride to the airport, the real legacy of the UP Express project will be to provide cover to any concerned community member, angry crank, NIMBYer or road warrior who wants to stand up at a community meeting and oppose a transit project.

It won’t matter why. The logic will be the same for those who have reasonable concerns and for those who just think public transit is for losers. All groups can now point to the experience with the airport line and say: “Look, ridership projections and business cases can be wrong.”

And not just a little wrong, either. The UP Express was supposed to carry 5,000 riders a day by June 2016. Actual ridership as of December was less than half that.

For transit advocates — and I am one — this is alarming.

The provincial budget released last week reiterates that Queen’s Park plans to invest about $15 billion in transit projects in and around Toronto. Metrolinx will be responsible for spending that money on a variety of projects that will be supported, like the UP Express and its original fares, by mountains of detailed reports.

That kind of evidence is critical to ensuring the GTA gets a well-used transit system. But evidence requires openness, transparency and accuracy.

Most critically, it requires public trust. Metrolinx may have finally given Toronto an affordable train ride to the airport, but I fear they’ve lost what matters most.

Matt Elliott lives and writes in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter @GraphicMatt