Academic journal article Canadian Public Administration

Federal Policy Ideas and Involvement in Canadian Urban Transit, 2002-2017

Academic journal article Canadian Public Administration

Federal Policy Ideas and Involvement in Canadian Urban Transit, 2002-2017

Article excerpt

Urban transit is a critical component of sustainable city-building. Transit technologies and services are necessary to achieve key urban sustainability goals, such as: improving mobility in an equitable fashion, reducing carbon emissions and fostering the intensification of urban form (Kennedy et al. 2005). Urban transit in Canada faces a significant funding shortfall, as provincial and local governments--which bear primary responsibility for service provision--struggle to cover the costs of both capital outlays and operational support (Canadian Urban Transit Association 2010a; Hjartarson, Szala, and Hinton 2011). Indeed, the value of transit infrastructure deemed to be in "poor" or "very poor" condition was estimated at $9 billion in 2016 (Canadian Infrastructure Report Card 2016).

Canada is the only G8 country lacking a national framework to provide stable and reliable funding for urban transit (Canadian Urban Transit Association 2010b; Hjartarson, Szala, and Hinton 2011). Unpredictable federal engagement is typical in many policy sectors with a municipal focus, a result of the delineation of constitutional responsibilities that grants provinces sole jurisdiction over the structure and content of municipal policy. Yet the Government of Canada possesses strong fiscal capacity and considerable flexibility through the "spending power," which permits federal intervention in areas of provincial jurisdiction via transfers of funds to individuals and institutions (Bakvis, Baier, and Brown 2009). International evidence indicating that predictable transit funding from senior-level governments improves ridership, urban productivity and social equity has prompted numerous actors to advocate for greater federal involvement in urban transit (Federation of Canadian Municipalities 2007; Hatzopoulou and Miller 2008; Buehler and Pucher 2011).

Federal intervention in urban affairs is not without precedent. Structured, long-term involvement in municipal governance dates from the late 1960s, when the Government of Canada initiated a cycle of federal-urban policy development with provinces and municipalities (Langford 1976; Oberlander and Fallick 1987; Spicer 2011). The Ministry of State for Urban Affairs (MSUA) was the result, which existed from 1971 to 1979 and provided support for provinces and municipalities in various forms, including research and resource allocation for transit projects. Similarly, the Ministry of State for Infrastructure and Communities existed briefly from 2005 to 2006, and recent years have witnessed a resurgent ad hoc and indirect federal role in matters pertaining to urban mobility. New programs, committees, and departmental mandates suggest that federal engagement in urban transit issues has evolved over time and continues to shift.

Increasingly vocal pleas for a major change in policy direction present an impetus to investigate the manner by which federal involvement in urban transit policy has changed in the past, and by extension, how it may evolve in the future. This justification is further supported by the growing need for more sustainable mobility patterns within North American cities. Canada's urban communities have historically relied heavily on public transit for social connectivity and economic stability (Perl and Pucher 1995). However, the automobile has largely determined the form and character of these cities in the postwar period, so traffic congestion, productivity loss and environmental impacts are growing in severity and prominence on the public agenda (Blais 2010; Walks 2015).

Scholars have conducted seminal inquiries into the formal mechanisms of federal intervention in urban affairs (Spicer 2010, 2011), the rise and fall of municipal issues on the federal policy agenda (Young and McCarthy 2009) and the dynamism of the federal-municipal organizational landscape (Stoney and Graham 2009), but there is little Canadian research about factors influencing federal involvement in urban transit specifically. …

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