By SUNIL RAO
Even as the drumbeat starts towards the next Ontario elections, which is possibly as close as this sprint, Premier Kathleen Wynn has entrusted the key transport portfolio to her trusted lieutenant Glen Murray.
SAF caught up with Murray to get his take on how he’s handled this important file, on which Wynn seems to have staked her future.
Amiable, easily approachable, and willing to put his point of view as frankly as only he can, Murray took some time out recently to give some quotable quotes on the transit file, as well as a possible spring election.
“The previous government didn’t take any risks so it never really made any mistakes… so if you don’t do anything, nothing ever goes wrong!”; and
“When I was young my mother said to me: ‘Glen, when you want to do things perfect, you may not get anything done at all.’ …. So it’s important to get things done, even if at times they may be slightly imperfect”; and
“(Will we get a majority?) In just a word, I’d say we’ll get enough. We’ll get enough!”
SAF: While the GTA-wide seamless transit plan will obviously have go focus on Toronto, what is your government doing for places like Brampton and Mississauga?
Murray: Actually, we’re undertaking a number of initiatives in this area. For instance, on the Hurontario Transit Corridor (through Peel Region), we will have LRT and BRT services, so commuters getting off the GO will have other options of continuing their journey home.
SAF: How will you fund this ambitious plan? How will you solve the key money problem?
Murray: There’s a whole bunch of ways. The board of trade is suggesting various ways, the community is discussing different ways of raising money we could have.
The challenge is if we don’t raise that money and make those transit investments in Scarborough, Etobicoke, Mississauga, Markham, to where people work, we’re going to continue to lose money. According to the Toronto Board of Trade, the Toronto Dominion Bank, we’re losing $6 billion — and that will grow to over $9 billion over the next 20 years.
What does that mean? How is that money being lost? That’s because congestion is so bad that trucks and people are not moving, so we’re losing productivity and investment. So this company has its products sitting on a road, and the trucks aren’t moving. And $6 billion — that’s big money. And we understand, people with lower salaries ; businesses are losing money on investment jobs; our children don’t get jobs; companies are losing so much money because they can’t move their goods around and deliver on time in this just-in-time economy — they’re losing millions of dollars that’s not going back into their businesses.
We can’t afford not to do this! We can’t afford to keep losing money. We have to make sure that we’re investing in transit, and in our highways and roads. And at the same time the population’s growing — we’re a big immigration area, people come from all over the world and from all across the country, the Prairies, and they come here. This is a region in Canada that continues to grow by hundreds of thousands of people, and we’ve to make sure that we’re keeping up.
SAF: You mentioned places like Scarborough and Markham and Mississauga, so the Big Move would perhaps help only the GTA, or the GTHA? And perhaps that’s the way your government headed by Premier Wynn is seen as well? But what would there be for people outside the GTA?
Murray: There’s a whole bunch. Right now our largest transit on our per capita basis is in Ottawa, which currently has its own program. We’re building major investments in London, with a whole highway program and interchanges; up to Barrie we’re building new additional transit service, we’re building parts of the 400 Highway; in northern Ontario we’re spending hundreds of thousands of dollars twinning and improving highways; in small towns, where they don’t have a lot of transit service, we have dedicated programs putting millions of dollars into roads and bridges and culverts and water systems and everything else.
We talk a lot about the Toronto issue because the congestion is the worst here, and the most people live here, and people take an hour and two hours to get home. So it’s the most visible transportation hub — but it isn’t more important than the others.
SAF: Transportation would also have to embrace the Green Movement — bicycles and electric scooters and pedestrian-friendly places. On the ground, initiatives concerning many of these kind of alternative modes would have to come from individual municipalities — but you at the provincial level too have a big role to play. What kinds of policies and procedural framework are you formulating so Queen’s Park can set the overarching policy framework, the blueprint, that individual cities and towns can follow at the municipal level, to make for a seamless, integrated public transport system of tomorrow?
Murray: A number of things: we’re putting bike-racks on, we’re building on the Trans-Canada Trail, we work with municipalities on many initiatives, for instance to help build dedicated transit corridors and routes, make streets safer for pedestrians as well as for motorists, as well as bike users and transit. That because most of us walk, and bike, and use transit, and drive. So we want streets to work for everybody.
We do talk more about transit in the GTA because we have more challenges here than any other part of the world. For instance there are more people here, right — and from all over the world. So no matter what language you speak, we need the signs — and so one of the things we’re working on is more road signage and symbols…
Even when many newcomer come, they may be coming from parts of the world where they use public transit, so the first thing that may come to their mind when they need to get someplace is not necessarily to drive, but to use transit — so they also use the money saved on buying their car to buy a house or for their kids’ education.
We have to make sure we have a transit system that works really well, to meet the needs of hundreds of thousands of people who speak 160 different languages — and that one of the most exciting things of living in this area.
SAF: While all levels of government profess their eagerness to do the right thing, the reality on the ground often is that things just fall through the cracks. With this being the norm, how much leverage would you be able to bring to bear from the provincial level, by laying down basic policy groundwork, to ensure other jurisdictions do the right thing? For instance, would you mandate, or encourage individual towns and jurisdictions, to start offering ‘share-a-cab’ services?
Murray: I’m sorry, share-a-cab…?
SAF: Oh, for instance these might be point-to-point short-haul cab services, at maybe just a dollar or two per fare, to ensure speedier transport services that optimize energy usage while also offering customers more affordable rates. Such an initiative would no doubt fall under individual municipal jurisdictions — but if you lay down the broad policy around this, and encourage municipalities to go down this route…
Murray: That’s a very interesting idea.
Part of what we’re doing right now is an integrated transit transportation plan, because people tend to use multiple services or modes of transport — sometimes a car, sometimes a bike, sometimes a taxi; in a city we also have a lot of people with disabilities, so we have specialized transit services with subsidized programs, which is kind of similar (to the share-a-cab idea).
So it’s an extremely good idea; at this time I don’t have a definitive answer, but it’s certainly something we’re considering in the northern communities, which don’t have any transit service at present, or have a small bus or a ferry or a taxi service, where this idea can be useful.
Part of something that we’ve developed over the last few years is the Presto card, which right now you can use on all the 11 transit authorities (in the GTA). People are also looking at whether this can be extended to Zipcar, the carsharing program. And can we have a taxi-car service around this program.
SAF: Perhaps it’s not such a great idea to get into the Presto program, which I believe has run into its own set of problems — which is also the legacy your own Kathleen Wynn government seems to have inherited from the previous government: the intention’s been good, but the execution has often been woefully inadequate, to put it kindly.
Murry: (Smiles) We’ve had challenges, certainly. We’d already started on a major subway project, but the last government just buried the subway line that was being built…. The last government did not invest any money in GO Transit for almost five years, so the service got congested. The previous government didn’t take any risks so it never really made any mistakes… so if you don’t do anything, nothing ever goes wrong!
But if you don’t do anything, don’t invest in transit, things get more congested, so things actually get worse!
I think we’re honest (and admit) if things don’t go the way we’d hoped — but we’re trying to do things. No one’s done anything on the subway system for a long time, and people will tell you they need better transit. So we’re trying to solve problems.
When you try to do things as a government, you may not get everything you want. When I was young my mother said to me: ‘Glen, when you want to do things perfect, you may not get anything done at all.’ So we’re trying to get things done on transit. Are things perfect? No, but we’re getting things done. We’re trying to improve healthcare. Are more people going to hospital? Yes, but we’re trying to improve services.
So it’s important to get things done, even if at times they may be slightly imperfect.
SAF: Absolutely, I’ll tell my boss that (to general laughter)!
Coming to your own government — it’s interesting to talk of big transit plans you’re making, but the truth is that your government can fall at any time. How difficult is it to get anything done at this juncture?
Murray: Oh very difficult! As in any minority situation. And we could head into any election at any time — but we could then come back with a majority as well. The polls show what Premier Wynn is saying is resonating with the people. For instance, we’ve just announced a huge expansion to our GO services — and you can just go, right through the day.
People are understanding that this is a new government, and we’re managing things in a different way, and we have a very comprehensive vision, and we want to do things in a meaningful way for regular, everyday working families by putting the money they give us to good use so they are served better.
You’ve got to give Premier Wynn a chance to do that. She’s not afraid to try to do brave things, she wants to take this province in a new direction — and I think she’s doing that well.
SAF: It’s interesting you’re predicting a majority for you party, should there be an election tomorrow. What would your prediction at Queen’s Park be for the seat counts of the individual parties?
Murray: Looking at things from the viewpoint of the people, I think our government’s doing all the right things. Ontario’s created more than 400,000 jobs since the recession, we’ve had a 143 per cent recovery in jobs since 2008. To put that in context: the US with a far bigger economy has had only a 53 per cent recovery. So we’re doing far better here, and we’re putting people back in jobs faster.
We’re also getting a lot of investment coming in here, to help create more jobs. That’s huge.
We need to create 100,000 more jobs next year, we have to keep that jobs growth momentum going. We have to invest in transit — a very basic thing. People want safe roads, affordable transit.
Our government’s working on several fronts. Education’s important, primary, secondary and post-secondary university education, and in the trades. If your child has the ability and gets the grades in high school, we’re ensuring they can get into an engineering or nursing or business school. That wasn’t possible before — tens of thousands of students were getting rejected, even if they were qualified.
That’s what parents, what families want.
My own family came from the Ukraine, and my grandmother always said to me: ‘My generation got the citizenship, your generation has to get the university degree.’ That was how you honoured your parents.
So that’s what we’re also doing as a government, which no other government has. Instead they want to raise tuition. So the choices are clear.
SAF: So would you hazard a guess as to how many seats the Liberals will end up with?
Murray: (Laughs) In just a word, I’d say we’ll get enough. We’ll get enough!
SAF: But it will be a majority, of course?
Murray: We’ll get enough. And if that’s the will of the people of Ontario, and we have a minority government, we’ll work with everyone —it won’t stop us from doing things for the people of Ontario. That’s what they elected us to do, and we’ll keep doing everything we can to get people to work, to make their lives easier.
SAF: And you do believe transit will be the battleground…
Murray: I believe there are two things that really matter to people… no, I’ll go to three.
Jobs, and good-paying jobs, with better opportunities for people, and even better opportunities for their children.
Mobility and safety, they want to live in a city or town where they can travel easily, inexpensively and safely.
And they want respect.
I think all of us want to be respected. That’s important. We want to be valued and cherished, we want to be able to celebrate our diversity, and make sure this is a land where everybody has the opportunity.
We’re not there yet. We’re trying to create a multicultural, multifaceted society in the world, and that is a big challenge for us in this century. And we need strong human rights and inclusion — and we need not just rhetoric, but substance.
I think if we can do those three things, we’re going to do really well.
By SUNIL RAO