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City cabinets and councils come and go. The GTA's regional transit authority must exercise its mandate

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Last week's brokering of an $8-billion transit plan on the city council floor should cause all of the Greater Toronto Area's taxpayers to feel nervous. It's exactly why Metrolinx, the regional transit planning agency, was created – and it's why we need it now more than ever.

Indeed, Metrolinx was the response to years of advocacy by organizations such as the Toronto Board of Trade, specifically warning of such situations. When the Ontario government created and passed the Metrolinx Act in 2006, it tasked the agency to "develop and adopt a transportation plan for the regional transportation area, and plan, co-ordinate and set priorities for its implementation."

Specifically, the act directs Metrolinx with the mandate to "ensure the efficient and cost-effective resolution of matters of shared concern respecting transportation," including "the optimal use and location of transportation infrastructure."

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But last week's events raise the question of whether Metrolinx has been given the authority to exercise its mandate. Six years after the act was passed, why is the provincial government looking to Toronto City Council to clarify the province's own position? We can only interpret that Metrolinx has not been given the authority we thought it had.

Signalling that key decisions are largely at a council's discretion is the reason why decisions and plans have gone back and forth. Cabinets and councils come and go. Nothing will get built if every new one sends progress in a different direction.

To be sure, Metrolinx must balance the democratic process with the need to depoliticize decision-making over the spending of limited resources. But the province must allow the agency to do what it was supposed to.

Furthermore, the province has its hands on the purse strings. It must enable Metrolinx to exert more influence on how those dollars are spent. It can't simply give Toronto, or any other GTA municipality, a blank slate for spending billions of dollars in provincial money.

Our transit challenges are much larger than going back and forth on decisions to bury or not to bury a particular route. This becomes even more critical when you consider the next major challenge.

As the province moves forward to finance and build the rest of the Big Move – a massive undertaking that will take at least 25 years – it must ensure that its transportation planning body has the weight to fulfill its assignment. Indeed, Metrolinx must play the lead role in advancing the full $50-billion regional transportation plan.

So long as transit planning remains politics as usual, progress will continue to be slow. Avoiding these politics is also why the Toronto Board of Trade will decline to participate in the city's advisory panel on the Sheppard line. Metrolinx should lead the analysis on what transit needs to be built, where it should be built and when.

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In doing so, the agency must propose the best business-case supported solutions to our region's transportation challenges, then forcefully voice its expert-based point of view.

Now is the time for Queen's Park to reaffirm the intentions behind Metrolinx's creation. Give it the assurance it can lead so we can get on with financing and building the regional transportation plan.

Carol Wilding is president and CEO of the Toronto Board of Trade.

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