Urban Transit Using Rural Money

James R Coggins
December 1, 2019
Time was that riding public transit was a tad déclassé, reserved for kids, little old ladies and people who hadn’t quite arrived, or never would. Songs like The Guess Who’s “Bus Rider” depicted its dreariness and repetitiveness. Nowadays, hopping the LRT or subway is cool, a virtuous act signalling environmental wokeness and “moving on” from the automobile. The riding experience, naturellement, needs to meet the steep expectations of current gens. And that doesn’t come cheap. James R. Coggins outlines the political game played by federal and municipal politicians that’s seeing tens of billions of dollars being shovelled into city coffers for lavish urban transit schemes, while country dwellers pay part of the freight and receive little but neglect and carbon taxes in return.

A few days before the October 21 federal election, Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart issued a public statement urging voters to vote for anybody but the Conservative Party. The former NDP MP stated that a Conservative government would be “a disaster for the city.” To support this unusual intervention, Stewart asserted that a Conservative government would provide less help (i.e., federal money) for affordable housing and urban transit and would be less open to helping with the opioid crisis through measures such as providing a “safe” supply of drugs to addicts at government expense. Kennedy was elated with the outcome, a Liberal minority government supported by the NDP.

The Liberal and NDP platforms promised huge federal money for public transit, benefiting municipal politicians and urban riders.

Stewart wasn’t the only happy mayor. Jonathan Coté is mayor of nearby New Westminster and chair of the mayors’ council at the regional transportation authority, TransLink. He said he was encouraged that the Liberal and NDP platforms included “some pretty significant commitments for investing in public transit.” Coté added, “I think we’re cautiously optimistic that it looks like a coalition government will partner with major cities.”

Before the election, the Big City Mayors’ Caucus, a collection of 22 cities that’s part of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM), issued a call for all federal party leaders to commit to “permanent” funding for transit. The mayors demanded the Trudeau government’s 10-year federal transit plan be perpetuated. This followed an earlier FCM statement calling on all federal parties to commit to making low-income housing more accessible. 

Cozy relationship: Prime Minister Trudeau at the Big City Mayors’ Caucus, where a key theme was billions for transit, housing and addiction.

Toronto Mayor John Tory supported the call by the Big City Mayors’ Caucus and praised the current federal transit plan, which has helped pay for improvements in Quebec City, Edmonton, Toronto, and other cities. The ironically named mayor called the Trudeau government “good partners” and added, “We need them to make solid commitments to us for the long term.” Going into the election the Trudeau government had, in fact, committed to spending more than $1 billion to improve public transit in Toronto. Canadian brokerage politics on full display.

Making good on the promise

Trudeau’s Liberals won almost all of their seats in the cities. The leader hardly campaigned anywhere else. Of the 65 electoral districts with the densest populations of at least 2,500 people per square kilometre, the Liberals won 54, the NDP took most of the rest, and the Conservatives won none. It seems obvious Trudeau will give the mayors what they’re asking for.

The federal government has no way to magically create money. Trudeau’s government will get the money by taxing residents of cities and then giving the money to city governments. There seems to be an unnecessary step there. But that is not the whole story. Some of the money will also come from taxing residents of rural areas, where most people voted Conservative. These residents will do their part to help the cities with their pressing problems.

And what will rural people get? A cynic would answer they will get the carbon tax. They will pay every time they fill up their pickups (and tractors and combines). There will be no public transit for them.

In its “election platform” the FCM called for Canada’s political parties to promise increased funding for four things: public transit, affordable housing, climate adaptation (to protect municipalities from wildfires, floods, and storm surges), and universal Internet access for northern and rural communities. The order of the “asks” is significant. Similarly, the Big City Mayors’ Caucus wants the federal government to spend $29 billion for transit systems with a large ridership (that is, those in big cities) in the period 2028-2038 and just $1 billion for transit systems in smaller cities and towns, plus an additional modest amount for rural transit.

Coggins - Inset 3 (above)
While city slickers commute with federally funded public transit options, rural dwellers will pay the carbon tax.

In its 2019 budget, the Liberal government promised to spend $1.7 billion over 13 years to provide high-speed Internet service to rural communities. That comes out to about $130 million per year nationwide. In contrast, just for Greater Vancouver, the federal government has committed $1.37 billion to two partial Skytrain extensions, meaning the ultimate spend will be at least twice that amount.

Provinces vs. cities

The day after the federal election, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney issued a five-page letter outlining his province’s “deep concerns.” These included asking for guarantees that the Trans-Mountain Pipeline will be built, changes to equalization payments, and repeal of Bill C-69 (which overhauls the environmental assessment of major projects and which critics argue will strangle natural resources development, hence its nickname the “No More Pipelines Bill”). But other than appointing various “advisors” to assist in communicating with the West, Trudeau made no promises.

Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe also wrote Trudeau, asking for a “new deal” for his province that would include scrapping the carbon tax, renegotiating equalization payments, and building pipelines. Moe managed to arrange a meeting with Trudeau but came away “disappointed” that Trudeau ducked any commitment to make changes. Trudeau instead tweeted, “Premier Scott Moe and I sat down in Ottawa today to talk about our priorities. I’m committed to working together to keep fighting climate change, creating jobs, and making life more affordable for people in Saskatchewan and across Canada.” The reference to climate change, which Moe had not raised, seemed to indicate Trudeau would not bend on issues such as the carbon tax.

Out in the cold: the transit funding game often bypasses the provinces and ignores regional-level economic problems.

While Trudeau has not met with Kenney, he did meet with Calgary’s flamboyantly left-leaning Mayor Naheed Nenshi on November 21. To his great credit, Nenshi did not demand money for city projects but instead asked for help with western Canada’s economic problems. In response, Trudeau said only that he was open to “improving” Bill C-69.

On the same day, Trudeau met with Vancouver Mayor Stewart. The tone was far different. Trudeau described it as an opportunity to “talk about all the great things we have been working on together”, citing their “outstanding partnership” which included federal funding on transit, housing affordability, and the opioid crisis. Stewart praised the Trudeau government’s “great investments” in his city and added, almost ritualistically, “We want those to keep coming.” An official federal government news release “reaffirmed” Trudeau’s “commitment” to fulfill Vancouver’s needs.

It seems clear the Trudeau government wants to focus its attention on cities, not provincial economies, and is far readier to help big cities than whole provinces, let alone rural areas in those provinces.

Canada’s “third level” of government

Municipal governments are not mentioned in Canada’s Constitution. They are created and overseen by provincial governments. They have no independent status, they pass no genuine laws, and they are not, legally speaking, a third order of government (below the federal and provincial). It’s a testament to how much things have evolved that these facts would stun most people. Even official government publications, such as this web page aimed at educating recent immigrants, talk openly about Canada’s three (or even four) “levels” of government.  

As Canada urbanized and its cities grew, municipalities increased their economic and political clout. Especially the big cities, which have grown not merely in absolute but relative terms. Today Canada’s six largest urban clusters (those of about 1 million or more each: greater Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, and Ottawa/Gatineau) contain 14.5 million people or about 40 percent of the nation’s population.

Public transit was often originally privately owned. Cities such as Toronto later took over their operation, and after the Second World War provinces began helping to fund subway systems. More recently, it has become common for municipal projects to be funded equally by the federal, provincial, and municipal governments. Stephen Harper’s Conservative government had such a program. The Trudeau government’s Public Transit Infrastructure Fund differs in that most of the money is being spent in big cities. And in some cases the federal government is contributing more than one-third of the cost.

It is noteworthy that Kenney’s first provincial budget, aimed at reining in Alberta’s huge deficit, included cuts of $236 million over three years to Alberta municipalities. Some cuts especially hit the big cities of Edmonton and Calgary. Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson, chair of the FCM’s Big City Mayors’ Caucus, said he was blindsided, while Nenshi complained about “broken promises.” He said a delay in the province’s provision of $1.53 billion for Calgary’s Green Line LRT could delay the whole project, and the city has been roiled by the subsequent haggling over what to do. Edmonton’s Valley Line West LRT extension might also be delayed. The province argued, however, that it funds municipalities at a higher level than the national average, that in Alberta’s current fiscal situation municipalities will have to pay more of the costs for major projects, and that the projects should still be able to proceed on time because federal funding will not be delayed.

Alberta reality check: Edmonton’s Valley Line LRT line under construction; the West extension and Calgary’s Green Line may be gone.

Trudeau’s political strategy to rebuild shattered Liberal support in Western Canada – with zero MPs in either Alberta or Saskatchewan – seems to be based on working with the big-city mayors. Not all are falling for it, however. Like Calgary’s Nenshi, Regina Mayor Michael Fougere said he would talk to the prime minister about the “profound disappointment people feel with how things are going in our economy.” He also pointed out the source of the Trudeau government’s largesse: “Our oil and gas industry is [the] critical lifeblood to not just western Canada, but for the rest of Canada. Transfer payments are based on, in many ways, the prosperity of Alberta and Saskatchewan.”

Saskatoon Mayor Charlie Clark also pointed out the needs of Saskatchewan as a whole. He said he would talk to other Prairie mayors, First Nations, and the provincial government and also bring their concerns to his meeting with Trudeau: “We have to find where that common ground is for all of our communities.” Similarly Marcel Roy, mayor of much smaller Weyburn in Saskatchewan’s main oil producing region, expressed frustration with the Trudeau government’s lack of concern for western Canada’s economy as a whole. “I know they’re talking to Calgary, Edmonton, Regina and Saskatoon, but there are more cities in western Canada than just the four major cities,” he said. “If that’s where all the money is going to go to, just the four major cities, then the Liberal government has failed.”

Saskatchewan’s Trade and Export Development Minister, Jeremy Harrison, said he’s concerned with Trudeau’s focus on mayors. “I’m not opposed to the Prime Minister having discussions with municipal leaders; that’s appropriate,” he said, but then added, “I would be highly opposed though to a formalized arrangement that would bypass the duly elected premiers of Saskatchewan and Alberta in favour of talking to municipal leaders.”

In spite of all this, the alliance between the big-city mayors and the Trudeau government is likely to continue – because it benefits both parties. The cities get the funding they need to continue building lavish projects which political interest groups and many residents love and that make their mayors and councillors look good, and Trudeau’s Liberals build up their chances to get the urban votes they need to stay in power. But this comes at the cost of deepening the divide between cities and rural areas and between the federal and provincial governments – plus those mayors who see through the game.

The more things change, the more they remain the same

A cynic might ask why the mayors of Canada’s big cities think the country’s rural areas should be subsidizing the urban ones. It can hardly be because country folk are so much wealthier. It is more likely a case of crass electoral math: the larger city populations can simply outvote rural areas and get what they want.

Historically, this imbalance is nothing new; it has always been this way. Cities have only been able to exist where there is a fertile countryside to nourish them. As they’ve grown, they’ve arrogated more and more political power and sucked in more and more economic benefits. If we think of the foundational products that people need – lumber, paper, metals, food, oil and natural gas, and electric power – we soon realize that these are all produced in the rural and wilderness areas and largely consumed in the cities.

Guys who see through the game: Saskatoon Mayor Charlie Clark (left) with Regina Mayor Michael Fougere (middle) ask Trudeau to focus on the entire regional economy.

And, to some degree, so are the people themselves. According to Statistics Canada, there has been a marked decrease in the size of the average Canadian household, particularly in urban areas. The 2016 census found that 28.7 per cent of Vancouver households consisted of only one person, a further 31.2 per cent had only two people, and just 34.5 per cent contained children. The ratios are similar for other big cities. Our postmodern urban islands have become vast agglomerations of people largely living alone.

Throughout history, cities have rarely been able to sustain, let alone increase, their populations, but have mostly relied on in-migration. Even today, many children are raised in rural or ex-urban areas before finding jobs in the city. There is some truth to the generalization that people are born in the country and die in the city.

It is probably too much to expect anything will change. As they have done for centuries, cities will continue to suck resources out of the countryside. A little gratitude might be in order.

James R. Coggins (www.coggins.ca) is a freelance writer, editor, and historian from Abbotsford, B.C.

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