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Federal policy ideas and involvement in Canadian urban transit, 2002-2017.

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. This article contributes to filling this lacuna by analyzing federal policy concerning urban transit in the period 2002-2017, with a substantive focus on policy ideas--the cognitive and normative concepts that provide direction for, and shape the perceived legitimacy of, policy choices. This time period was selected due to the growing prominence of urban transit issues on the political agenda since the turn of the century (Hjartarson, Szala, and Hinton 2011), as well as the fluctuating federal landscape over this time, featuring three governments and two parties in power.

Justification for the selection of this period of analysis also relates to the growing alignment of intergovernmental interests that emerged in this period. Municipalities have sought and received assistance from the highest order of government for new fiscal responsibilities. For instance, Horak (2012b) argued that provincial downloading of fiscal responsibilities to municipalities in the 1990s stimulated municipal lobbying of federal partners to fill funding gaps left by the provinces. Indeed, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) (and the Big City Mayors' Caucus in particular) has advocated for the achievement of a national transit strategy, and played an important role in securing increased federal involvement that eventually culminated in the "New Deal for Canadian Municipalities," a short-lived policy initiative launched in 2003 (Martin 2002).

Despite a reduction in the provincial share of overall transit funding in the 1990s (Horak 2012b; Canadian Urban Transit Association 2015), provincial transit interests have not waned in recent years. Indeed, provinces began to introduce and revitalize a number of regional institutions for the delivery of transit services in the early 2000s. The form and functions of these agencies differ in many respects, but broadly, organizational goals aim to integrate and coordinate transit service delivery across municipal boundaries. Despite lingering issues regarding the efficacy of these organizations in achieving their integrative goals (Schabas 2013), provincial interests have been largely cohesive around the need for more investment in urban transit, and significant emphasis has been placed on the introduction of higher-order light-rail and bus-rapid transit systems, given the inability of conventional bus routes to compete with the automobile for mode share, particularly for commuters in mid-sized cities (Ruffilli 2010).

Federal interests, meanwhile, also changed at the turn of the century. Paul Martin's Liberal Party injected new political will into the national urban transit policy landscape. During his short tenure as Prime Minister (2003-2006), the federal government embraced tenets of "new localism" and acknowledged the inability of local and provincial governments to redress infrastructure deficits in the absence of renewed federal support (Bakvis, Baier, and Brown 2009), largely in response to coordinated municipal lobbying efforts given the reduction in provincial assistance to transit agencies for capital funding (Horak 2012a). Roschlau (2008) argued that two other key drivers contributed to the ascension of urban transit on the federal policy agenda. These included the need to reduce greenhouse gases and mitigate climate change, as well as political pressure from workers' unions to provide tax exemptions for employer-provided transit benefits (which catalyzed interest and debate among both social and environmental advocates).

The Prime Minister's Caucus Task Force on Urban Issues was launched prior to Martin's election, signifying changing political foci in the Liberal Party. With new leadership, a new policy direction and programs under the umbrellas of the "New Deal for Canadian Municipalities" and the Ministry of State for Infrastructure and Communities (MSIC) emerged, applying an "urban lens" to federal activities (Shaker 2005). Spicer (2010) argued that this incarnation of a federal urban role was more successful than MSUA due primarily to institutional "lessons-learned" regarding a heavy-handed and bi-lateral approach to engagement with cities. Under MSIC's framework, provinces were treated more as equal partners than barriers (Spicer 2010), a contextual approach to governance referred to as "deep federalism" (Bradford 2007). This confluence of municipal, provincial and federal interests laid the foundation for tri-level partnerships in transit witnessed over this time period.

In tandem with the alignment of intergovernmental interests described above, it is generally accepted in policy studies literature that understanding policy change in any particular domain demands analysis of a decade or more (Sabatier 1993, 2007). This study attempts to redress the lack of analysis about the influences on federal government in urban transit. Through a thematic content analysis of policy documents, it explicates the paradigms, programmatic foci, frames and public sentiments that have underpinned federal urban transit policy over the past 15 years. This article represents part of a broader research effort that charted the relationship between federal interests, issues and policy ideas from 1968 to the present. Although it presents findings from only the most recent era, the substance of recent federal interest in "local" issues (including urban transit) described in this article generally contrasts periods of initial engagement in the late 1960s and 1970s (a prescriptive and largely unsuccessful period marked most notably by a the short-lived institution of a Ministry of State for Urban Affairs) and subsequent "disengagement" on municipal issues in the 1980s and 1990s in the context of the New Public Management (Oberlander and Fallick 1987; Spicer 2010; Spicer 2011). These periods demand attention in their own right, and influences from both eras are discussed and inform the analysis in this article as appropriate.

The article begins by discussing policy ideas as an analytical construct, outlining the theoretical underpinnings of the concept and its relevance to urban transit. The research design is then described, drawing connections to policy ideas as an analytical framework. Federal policy ideas over the study period are then analyzed, followed by a discussion of the nature and purpose of the ideas invoked by federal agents. Finally, conclusions are drawn, identifying implications for policy idea scholarship and for decision-makers tasked with addressing Canada's urban transit problems.

Policy ideas

Policy ideas refer to the organizing principles and causal beliefs in which policy alternatives are embedded, which may be internal to a society or policy domain, or adopted (or adapted) from elsewhere (Beland 2005). As described by Campbell (1998), policy ideas are an important unit of analysis in analyzing policy change over time, used most effectively in tandem with an investigation of the issues, institutions and interests of actors in a given policy sphere. This analysis focuses exclusively on policy ideas as one important aspect of the federal government's interest in urban transit, which provide a glimpse into the underlying factors influencing the actions of the federal government vis-a-vis urban transit.

Policy ideas research dates back to Hall's (1993) seminal work, in which the influence of normative and causal ideas on shifts in "policy paradigms" was first proposed. Subsequent research has built empirical support for the contribution of ideas to policy development and change (for example, Baumgartner 2013; Kangas, Niemela, and Varjonen 2014; Bradford 2015; Campbell and Pedersen 2015; Eleveld 2015). For instance, Hansen and King (2001) studied how ideas about eugenics influenced the evolution of immigration and family planning policies in the United Kingdom and the United States in the early twentieth century. They found that the timing of policy ideas is important: ideas tend to gain traction when political circumstances are conducive to their uptake, mainly when they reinforce deeply held beliefs of central policy actors. Bleich (2002) used policy ideas as an analytical lens to understand differences in British and French policies to combat racism. By tracing the history of policy development in the two states, he demonstrated how different framing of the issue oriented policy actors towards certain goals and actions. More recently, Beland and Waddan (2015) analyzed the ways in which shifting policy ideas interacted with different types of insitutions to influence the scope and substance of tax policy in the United States and the United Kingdom over three decades.

Policy ideas have also been invoked to explain "path dependency," meaning general inertia of the status quo, in which ideational and symbolic legacies of pre-existing policy choices empower or disempower actors who invoke these symbols (Beland 2010; Eleveld 2015). Beland (2009) suggested that ideas influence policy-making in three distinct ways: (1) by constructing and defining problems on the political agenda; (2) by legitimizing or challenging assumptions of actors, affecting the content of proposals for reform and mediating issues deemed important; and (3) by acting as "discursive weapons" for supporters or opponents of a given policy direction.

Some researchers suggest that analyses based on policy ideas have failed to clearly specify the constructs by which policy ideas may be observed and measured (Beland and Waddan 2015; Berman 2013). Beland and Waddan (2015:191) admonished scholars to "clearly define 'ideas' at the outset" and to break down the concept into more specific subcategories. Policy ideas can be operationalized effectively by adhering to Campbell's (1998) framework, which proposed four types amenable to qualitative assessment. These include:

* Paradigms: systems of causal beliefs constraining the range of useful solutions readily available to policy-makers;

* Programmatic ideas: technical policy prescriptions charting clear and specific actions for governments;

* Frames: political symbols and concepts invoked by policy-makers to legitimize policy interventions; and,

* Public sentiments: normative assumptions limiting the range of alternatives policy-makers perceive as publicly acceptable.

Indeed, other analysts have recommended similar constructs in classifying and tracing evolutions of policy ideas in order to create "integrated discourses" across a range of actors involved in the policy-making process (Berman 2013; Bradford 2015). Cox and Beland (2013) suggested that policy ideas can be understood in relation to their valence, referring to the "emotional quality" of an idea that makes it more or less attractive. High-valence ideas tend to be abstract and easily generalized across a range of policy problems; low-valence ideas, conversely, tend to relate to a specific problem and therefore attract narrower support. The timeliness of an idea in relation to political, economic and social circumstances is also important, as is the relative ability or willingness of policy entrepreneurs to market the idea to appropriate constituencies (Cox and Beland 2013).

Research design

The chief objective of this study--to examine the ideas underpinning the Government of Canada's policy vis-a-vis urban transit--was approached via thematic content analysis of policy documents. Based on Yanow's (2007) typology of documents relevant to qualitative policy research, a number of written texts were sought, including legislative records; committee, task force and commission publications and reports; and ministry, department and agency reports. In total, twenty documents were analysed for this time period, which proved an appropriate "saturation point" in the document analysis (that is, the point at which information tended to repeat) (Hsieh and Shannon 2005; Bowen 2009).

A "directed approach" to content analysis was employed, meaning that theory determined the initial coding categories (Hsieh and Shannon 2005). Qualitative analysis software (QSR NVivo 11) was used to organize documents, and these inputs were further categorized in two interrelated stages: "thematic" and "open" coding. In the thematic stage, each document was scanned line-by-line to explore ways in which policy ideas were represented in the text (Hsieh and Shannon 2005: 1283). Campbell's (1998) categories formed the foundational coding structure: in each instance that a policy idea regarding urban transit (or an analogous concept) was explicitly or implicitly discussed, the most relevant thematic code (paradigms, programs, frames and public sentiments) was assigned.

Specifically, "paradigm" codes included statements defining the specific or general problems the policy aimed to solve, causal linkages between phenomena related to urban transit, and rationales for action. "Programs" included proposals for tangible projects, plans or operational programs, as well as passages proposing the transfer of resources to other levels of government, transit providers or users. "Frame" codes captured value-laden statements made to reflect or sway public opinion and political support toward policy alternatives. Finally, "public sentiments" included ways in which public perspectives, opinions and beliefs were represented, including passages referencing public opinion polls, focus groups and quotations from other public forums.

A second round of "open coding" was undertaken, in which all thematically-coded excerpts were further analyzed to concretely describe policy ideas. Open coding refers to the identification of "concepts or key ideas ... hidden within textual data" (Bhattacherjee 2012: 114) via the determination of sub-categories within the content (Hsieh and Shannon 2005: 1282). Memo-writing was employed to maintain "closeness" to the data (Single 2010) and identify recurrent thematic codes. "Focused" reading of these memoranda was then used to consolidate themes into a workable group of open codes (Krippendorff 2004). These open codes--which "emerged" from the data (Bowen 2009)--provided substantive descriptions of the policy ideas identified during thematic coding.

Data interpretation was carried out by presenting the results of both thematic and open coding for each category of ideas, and discussing and comparing substantive themes. From these comparisons, key findings were developed related to the policy ideas embodied in federal engagement in urban transit.

Federal policy ideas, 2002-2017

This section presents specific research findings, organized according to the four-part classification scheme outlined above.

Paradigmatic ideas

Paradigmatic ideas are high-level assumptions about cause and effect relationships that shape the range of alternatives policy elites perceive to be feasible and desirable (Campbell 1998). Many of the paradigmatic policy ideas espoused in the study period relate closely to broader political issues that grew in prominence in the late-1990s, such as climate change, globalization and aging infrastructure. As explained below, federal involvement in urban transit was regarded as a vehicle for addressing these priorities.

Climate change and sustainability imperatives were important paradigmatic ideas in this era, as the anthropogenic nature and serious consequences of the phenomenon gathered scientific and political support. A Transport Canada (2004) survey of national transportation policies in Canada's peer nations suggested that sustainability had become a key policy objective, by reducing automobile use and shifting modal shares toward transit, particularly in large cities. Similarly, a link between urban sprawl and climate change was made by the Canadian Council of Ministers Responsible for Transportation and Highway Safety's Urban Transportation Task Force in both 2005 and 2009. The sustainable development priorities underpinning transit-related federal programs were also discussed as necessary, given these "policy imperatives" (Transport Canada 2005b,2006). An excerpt from Transport Canada's Urban Transit in Canada: Taking Stock (2002: 11) captured the paradigm cogently:

Canada's escalating urbanization and increasing international attention to global warming and sustainable living have raised the [federal government's] interest in becoming involved with urban transit. This commitment comes at a time when provincial funding of the transit industry has decreased to levels that, in many provinces, are not considered sustainable. Recently, federal support for urban transit has been highlighted in the Speech From the Throne, recommendations by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, the National Climate Change Program, as well as the Federal Budget, which has benchmarked significant funds towards programs for which urban transit qualifies.

Globalization and competitiveness was cited extensively as the impetus for an increased federal focus on transit. For instance, the Prime Minister's Caucus Task Force on Urban Issues (2002) highlighted economic competitiveness with other G8 nations as the rationale for federal transit investment. Canada's falling quality-of-life score in international rankings was also listed by Transport Canada (2004) as an important motivation. Urban congestion and gridlock were increasingly linked to the competitiveness and economic health of cities, a discourse spanning both Liberal and Conservative governments (Infrastructure Canada 2012; Urban Transportation Task Force 2009).

The growing infrastructure deficit also came to the forefront of federal consciousness, due largely to the sentiments of municipal politicians. Transport Canada (2002) blamed outdated infrastructure on low fares and declining financial contributions from provinces. Irwin (2003), presenting at the Transportation Association of Canada (TAC) Annual Conference, argued that a lack of investment at all levels related primarily to fragmentation in infrastructure responsibilities and transportation/land use planning. A later report by TAC (2012) suggested that by the late 2000s, municipalities were no longer able to defer infrastructure expansion or cut services, and were in need of additional funding.

However, TAC also highlighted an "overemphasis" on capital programs without commensurate operating funding (Transportation Association of Canada 2012). Similarly, the Urban Transportation Task Force (2005) suggested that aging vehicle fleets in the 1990s and 2000s left little operating funds available for service improvements and upgrades. Although the organization praised federal capital commitments, it suggested in 2009 that the "roll-out" time associated with these programs exacerbated funding problems and increased the industry's financial needs from the mid- to late-2000s (Urban Transportation Task Force 2009).

The impacts of economic crises of the late 2000s were mentioned briefly in relation to transit. For instance, spiking fuel prices in the late 2000s were blamed for increased transit ridership, providing governments with short-term incentives to focus on these services (Urban Transportation Task Force 2009). However, research conducted by Finance Canada (2011) suggested that the recession from 2008-2009 may have reduced transit usage as a function of increased unemployment. The job-creation benefits of infrastructure stimulus projects were also cited as political motivators for federal involvement in capital projects for urban transit.

Intergovernmental partnership was another paradigmatic idea espoused in many policy documents. The Prime Minister's Caucus Task Force on Urban Issues (2002) suggested that budget shortfalls at the turn of the century provided the political impetus to strengthen intergovernmental collaboration, and that timely action was required before the "opportunity for change" passed. Other motivators for more effective intergovernmental partnerships included regional uncertainties and discrepancies regarding unitcosts of transit provision, the absence of an effective transportation pricing regime, and the increasingly intertwined interests of all three levels of government in cities (Transport Canada 2003, 2005a, 2005c). While the Urban Transit Task Force (2010) noted that federal contributions to transit capital projects declined from 2007-2010, the willingness of all orders of government to subsidize transit represented "unprecedented" partnership, according to the Standing Committee on Transportation, Infrastructure and Communities (Canada 2012). Support in the federal bureaucracy for new transit partnerships was provided by Transport Canada (2002:10):

The availability of long-term sustained and guaranteed funding support for transit agencies would provide the agencies with the ability to plan and commit to vehicle purchases in a stable and predictable environment. This would, in turn, allow equipment manufacturers to invest in their production capability to meet the needs of an expanded market.

The differing needs of large and mid-sized cities for transit services were acknowledged as an important qualifier of federal involvement. The Urban Transportation Task Force (2005) noted disparities both within and among provinces, though funding deficits could be considered proportionally by controlling for population and resources. Transit dysfunction was generally characterized as more pressing in larger metropolitan areas, requiring different policy solutions for large and mid-sized cities despite similar funding shortfalls and inadequate political support (Transport Canada 2002; Urban Transportation Task Force 2009; Ruffilli 2010).

The impacts of federal involvement in transit policy were also widely discussed. The Urban Transportation Task Force (2009) suggested that an increased federal role in the early years of the era translated into "increased funding, new and expanded transit systems, and growth in ridership," leading to a "dramatic" change in the state of transit funding by the mid2010s, despite rapidly expanding urban populations and transit demand. Reduced environmental assessment requirements passed in the 2012 budget were also cited as beneficial for the expedience of the Building Canada Fund's transit projects. Ruffilli (2010) suggested that federal programming acknowledged the need for cost-sharing and the inclusion of transit as an eligible infrastructure investment category beginning in the 1990s. The implementation of the Public Transit Tax Credit for individuals was described by Finance Canada (2011) as an important response to rising transit fares in the 2000s, given the sensitivity of users to permanent changes in fare levels. Requirements for safety and security improvements and better air quality were also touted as benefits of federal efforts by Infrastructure Canada (2012) and the House of Commons Standing Committee on Transport, Infrastructure and Communities (Canada 2012).

In short, dominant paradigmatic ideas related to urban transit from 2002-2017 invoked by the federal government drew upon Canada's growing urban problems, as well as global environmental issues that became focal points for the news media. Echoing Cox and Beland (2013), it can be inferred that the timeliness of urban transit within a larger discourse of sustainable development may have helped to increase its profile on a national scale. These policy ideas are summarised in Table 1.

Programmatic ideas

Programmatic ideas are technical and professional ideas that guide action by prescribing how to solve specific policy problems. At the turn of the century, transit had become one of three priority program areas for the federal political executive in the context of urban issues. This focus intensified through a number of capital funding initiatives and related cost-sharing and policy measures, though the substance and style of program design and delivery evolved in tandem with changes in political leadership.

Responses to the rising profile of urban and sustainability issues were noted in the early 2000s. A Task Force on Urban Communities was created in the Privy Council Office in order to "develop a profile of the federal presence in urban centres," while line departments were instructed to prepare and submit "sustainable development strategies" (Prime Minister's Caucus Task Force on Urban Issues 2002: iv). This led to the establishment of the Prime Minister's Caucus Task Force on Urban Issues, which made a number of programmatic recommendations for federal involvement in urban transit, including the consolidation of all transit-related programs into one national transit strategy; the development of transit-supportive tax incentives, such as the National Capital Region's "Ecopass"; and investment in an intercity high-speed rail network to integrate with urban transit systems (though only tax incentives came to fruition) (Prime Minister's Caucus Task Force on Urban Issues 2002). Transport Canada also spearheaded a number of initiatives, including funding support for the Centre for Sustainable Transportation at the University of Winnipeg (Centre for Sustainable Transportation 2006). In 2005, Transport Canada also launched the Urban Transportation Showcase Program, designed to support municipalities in developing, demonstrating, and evaluating the effectiveness of greenhouse gas reduction strategies, tools and practices (Transport Canada 2005a, 2005b, 2005c).

In 2011, the Standing Committee on Transport, Infrastructure and Communities assessed stakeholder positions on a more concrete federal role in urban transit policy. The capital funding initiatives discussed below are also listed as direct responses to sustainability policy goals and transit funding shortfalls (Canada 2012). Finally, Transport Canada's Moving on Sustainable Transportation (MOST) program (persisting into the mid-2000s) funded educational and promotional efforts about public transportation, and sought to better integrate SListainable development into programs and policies (Transport Canada 2006). Provincial and regional transit institutions (for example, Metrolinx in Toronto, TransLink in Vancouver, and l'Agence metropolitaine de transit [AMT] in Montreal) were identified as potential partners in increasing the sustainability of transportation in cities (Urban Transportation Task Force 2009; Urban Transit Task Force 2010).

A number of capital funding initiatives were designed in the 21st century (for example, Gas Tax Transfer, Building Canada Fund, and so on), though some did not come to fruition. For instance, the New Deal for Canadian Municipalities' 10-year infrastructure commitments, to be coordinated via the Ministry of State for Infrastructure and Communities, were stymied by a change of government in 2006, but were promoted by the Prime Minister's Caucus Task Force (2002: 14) as "an important step towards the recognition of urban transit as an area of long-term national investment." The Canada Strategic Infrastructure Fund was another program preceding both Paul Martin's leadership and Stephen Harper's Conservative government, in which transit was an eligible investment category (Transport Canada 2003). From 2006-2011, Finance Canada (2011) estimated that federal contributions to transit capital projects exceeded $5 billion. The importance of delivering these projects in partnership with the private sector was also espoused by members of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Transportation, Infrastructure and Communities (SCOTIC) (Canada 2012).

These federal programs involved funding conditions, but SCOTIC noted the only condition on capital funds in the mid-2010s was a stated commitment from provincial and local governments to cover "operating [cost] losses in their totality" (Canada 2012: 17). Similarly, the only condition placed on Gas Tax Funds was that municipalities spend on projects eligible under the Building Canada Fund (in which transit was the second-largest investment category). Provincial funding conditions imposed on local transit agencies, however, were both extensive and varied: these were described by the Urban Transportation Task Force (2005) along a spectrum including direct assumption of operating responsibilities, targeted payments to agencies for capital or operating expenses, and unconditional grant allocations.

Programmatic ideas about an improved institutional framework for transit permeated the document sample. Then-Finance Minister Paul Martin (2002) acknowledged early the need to "vacate existing tax room" for municipalities, while describing his government's wariness regarding the creation of dedicated federal taxes given their inflexibility to changing circumstances. This position was reinforced via the dedication of the flexible Gas Tax Fund to Canadian municipalities. Transport Canada (2002) asserted that a number of policy instruments could be used by provincial and local governments in concert with federal transit investments targeted at both large and mid-sized cities, including transit priority measures on urban arteriais; flexible zoning, density and parking requirements in municipal plans; and systematic consideration of transit in development-approval processes. There was also some discussion about the possibility of "alternative" delivery of transit services by private operators (Transport Canada 2002).

In addition, research by Transport Canada (2005b) identified the importance of establishing effective performance measures for municipalities and transit systems, the selection of effective pricing tools for transportation, and the harmonization of regional and provincial transportation plans. Similarly, SCOTIC (Canada 2012) recommended the federal government engage with provinces and municipalities to construct a long-term, national-scale transit infrastructure plan.

A number of programmatic ideas about intergovernmental mechanisms were highlighted in the document sample. For instance, Paul Martin (2002) promised to consult face-to-face with a group of mayors selected by the FCM prior to the preparation of annual budgets. However, this consultative mechanism did not last under the Harper Government, which preferred flexible capital funding sources with some targeted, cost-shared interventions. The Public Transit Capital Trust and the Gas Tax Fund were described by the CCMRTHS (2009, 2010) as the most effective intergovernmental policy mechanisms of the 2000s. Invoking these and other initiatives of the era, Ruffilli (2010) noted that the absence of a coordinating policy was countered via cost-sharing agreements for capital programs and bilateral agreements on special initiatives (for example, regional rapid transit projects).

Finally, programmatic ideas about federal support for soft initiatives included moderating demand for automobile travel and encouraging transit use. For instance, the Urban Transit Task Force (2009) operated an information-sharing program for transportation demand-management measures across Canadian jurisdictions in order to encourage their uptake. TAC (2012) suggested that the relatively inexpensive adoption and promotion of these transit-supportive policies represented an important complement to funding initiatives. In terms of tangible programming, the Public Transit Tax Credit was introduced in Budget 2006 to promote transit use by reducing fare costs by approximately 15 percent with the purchase of monthly or annual transit passes (Finance Canada 2011).

In sum, programmatic ideas have focused on enhancing capital support, albeit with few and relatively simple criteria for spending. Intergovernmental mechanisms for sharing the costs of transit with provinces and municipalities became prominent, representing a marked change from previous decades. Generally, emphasis on a more prominent and coordinative federal role in urban transit has emerged. Table 2 provides an outline of the programmatic policy ideas identified in the document sample.


Frames are normative political symbols and concepts used by policymakers to generate support for policy proposals and legitimize policy interventions. The document sample revealed several means by which federal engagement in urban transit policy was justified. First, there were many passages featuring federal acknowledgement of the fiscal imbalance and need for stability in urban transit. Key statements in this regard include claims that "the country's infrastructure needs exceed the capacities of the three orders of government" (Martin 2002: 8), and that "all orders of government must recognize that amongst competing urban interests ... transit merit(s) a proportional share of new investment" (Urban Transportation Task Force 2005: 3). In 2002, Paul Martin asserted to representatives of the FCM:

The challenges you face were intensified after the fiscal belt-tightening that has taken place in recent years by provincial and federal governments alike. Let's just take two examples: housing and urban transit. Both present daunting challenges that simply must be tackled in order to secure the quality of life we all desire for the future. But the solutions--that is to say, the development of affordable rental accommodation and the required investment in new transit infrastructure--are simply beyond the capacities of local governments acting alone (Martin 2002).

Similarly, federal engagement in transit was framed in terms of risks associated with the status quo, highlighting consequences of congestion and transit policy fragmentation. Presenting arguments to TAC, Irwin (2003: 10) suggested that "[i]f the existing funding shortfalls for urban transportation and fragmented governance ... are not addressed in the near future, Canadian urban areas face major environmental, economic and social risks affecting up to 80 percent of Canada's population directly where they live and work." "Detrimental impacts on the economy and society" stemming from poor transit was also cited as a risk associated with the status quo (Transportation Association of Canada 2012).

In a related vein, transit investment as a key to economic prosperity was a notable frame. A number of documents cited the economic benefits of transit investments, emphasizing that the long-term well-being of individuals, households and communities depends on economic growth "promised" via urban transit improvement (Transport Canada 2002, 2003).

In the late 2000s, federal infrastructure stimulus programs were framed as critical for Canada to "emerge from economic crisis with a more modern and green infrastructure" (Urban Transportation Task Force 2009: 18). The time-and cost-savings for auto and transit commuters via the reduction of urban road congestion and improvement of transit capacity were also championed (Urban Transportation Task Force 2009; Ruffilli 2010), as were the ability of these programs to help cities attract and maintain commercial investment and "talented people" (Infrastructure Canada 2012). Other documents claimed that costs required to transition to more transit-oriented communities would be outweighed by gains in urban quality of life and productivity (Transportation Association of Canada 2012).

Several documents framed urban transit investment as a tool to combat climate change. "Urban transportation systems without extensive and well-maintained transit" were cited as an "undesirable future" for Canadian cities in the context of climate change (Urban Transportation Task Force 2009). According to Transport Canada (2002), the MOST program was able to bring significant media exposure to the potential impacts of climate change. Reducing the intergenerational impacts of auto use and greenhouse gas emissions were cited by the Prime Minister's Caucus Task Force (2002); improved air quality, mobility for those without the means or access to car ownership were described by the Urban Transit Task Force (2005, 2009); and the SCOTIC reiterated transit's benefits for the mobility of dependent populations in 2012 (Canada 2012).

In support of the capital programming discussed in the previous section, the constitutionality of intervention was a common theme. As in previous eras, efforts were made in the documents to frame intervention as respecting the constitutional division of powers (Urban Transportation Task Force 2009). However, Ruffilli (2010) suggested that the scale of funding problems faced by municipalities necessitated greater federal involvement with both funding and other collaborative efforts (that is, "soft" policy measures, such as public education), a theme echoed by Transport Canada's 2003 Vision for Transportation in Canada. As noted by the Urban Transportation Task Force (2009: 3):

The challenges faced by urban areas will require not only new funding but also a new partnership amongst orders of governments. Principles that could underlie an effective partnership unanimously supported by provincial respondents to a Task Force survey include: Federal programs should respect provincial and territorial jurisdiction and planning priorities; Federal funding programs should not be contingent upon matching funding from provinces and territories; There should be flexibility in program designs to accommodate programs that meet the needs of the jurisdictions.

In 2012, Infrastructure Canada suggested that funding programs implemented by the Harper Government "recognized that provinces and municipalities are best-placed to develop and implement transit strategies that meet their local needs," emphasizing flexibility and avoiding federal involvement in project selection or prioritization. Infrastructure Canada defended the minimal funding conditions, noting that earmarking funds specifically for transit "excluded" communities without transit systems (Canada 2012). However, the SCOTIC recommended retaining some degree of federal influence, including the involvement of the FCM in establishing "transit-specific measures" municipalities must meet to be eligible for funding, such as lowering commute times, creating jobs in the transit industry, and measurably improving air quality (Canada 2012).

Finally, a number of framing statements alluded to the variation in transit needs across Canada as a means to justify federal engagement. Recognizing diversity in the "physical, social, and cultural geography of Canada's cities," Transport Canada (2002) suggested that significant consultation and analysis should be undertaken prior to selecting an appropriate transit service in a given locale (Transport Canada 2002). The Urban Transportation Task Force framed transit as "critical to maintaining viable and livable smaller communities ... providing a much-needed transportation option for all residents, but particularly for the elderly and low-income residents" (Urban Transportation Task Force 2009). Other passages suggest that variation in transit needs contains social dimensions: while transit may not be practical for some households, or efficient in some communities, the importance of maintaining quality of life for new immigrants and dependents "cannot be overstated" (Infrastructure Canada 2012: 4). However, the federal government's position in 2012 (as articulated to the SCOTIC by Infrastructure Canada) remained firmly that the choice to provide these services should be left to provinces and cities (Canada 2012).

In sum, this section suggests that urban transit frames invoked by the federal government largely drew upon the positive policy "valence" (Cox and Beland 2013) provided by the global environmental and transportation paradigms discussed previously, as well as increasingly significant fiscal challenges faced by service providers. Table 3 provides an overview of frames identified in the sample.

Public sentiments

Public sentiments are normative assumptions about public attitudes discerned through opinion polls and other forms of constituent feedback, which constrain the range of alternatives that policy-makers are likely to perceive as publicly acceptable (Campbell 1998). The analysis revealed several public sentiments that guided the scope and substance of federal policy toward public transit during the study period.

Portrayals of attitudes toward user fees and taxation mechanisms figured prominently. In its review of urban transportation pricing options, for example, Transport Canada (2005c) suggested that user fees for transit were widely accepted, and that support for road user fees was growing. Municipal stakeholders demanded tax rebates from the federal government for purchasing railway corridors for urban transit rights-of-way, arguing that these would further incentivize transit-supportive procurement, while constituencies of transit users argued (successfully) for tax exemptions for employer-provided transit passes (Canada 2012). Indeed, Finance Canada (2011) suggested that by 2011 public awareness of the Public Transit Tax Credit was strong, helping to fuel support for transit user fees and senior-level investment.

Some of these perspectives can be attributed to dissatisfaction with the fiscal gap and funding criteria. In 2012, the positions of various municipal stakeholders were presented to the SCOTIC in the context of its investigation into a possible expanded federal presence in urban transit (Canada 2012). Municipal resources were increasingly insufficient to meet transit needs, despite federal programs introduced in the 2000s and 2010s. Some argued for more stringent criteria specifying that funds be used for transit, as well as stronger cost-recovery requirements and the inclusion of social and environmental benefits in cost-benefit analyses underpinning applications (Canada 2012). Other witnesses testifying before the SCOTIC in 2014 and 2015 argued that ridership growth spurred by federal investment necessitated continued funding and policy support, and that citizens have demonstrated a willingness to pay (both through taxes and user fees) provided that funds are dedicated to transit.

Public demand for reduced congestion and environmental impacts was assumed in several policy documents. Public consultations by the Urban Transportation Task Force (2005, 2009) suggested that an "extra-jurisdictional" federal role in urban transit is required, given that economic and environmental issues arising from inadequate services (for example, reduced productivity; pollution) are national in scope. Reduced congestion and commute times via transit improvement were also presented to the SCOTIC as a means to attract higher-paying jobs to Canadian cities (Canada 2015). However, given the diversity of "publics" with an interest in urban transit, contradictory positions were not surprising.

Demand for federal leadership was also prominent. For instance, Transport Canada's (2006) MOST Program review suggested that stakeholders were satisfied with the program's goals and instruments, and argued for funding extensions beyond its two-year limit. Calls for federal action beyond largely unconditional cost-shared programs (for example, operational support and increased public engagement efforts) were advocated by the FCM and municipal operators in SCOTIC hearings (Canada 2012). The Amalgamated Transit Union (representing transit workers) also argued for federal leadership, as well as an increase in the federal 25-percent share in public-private partnerships for capital projects (Canada 2014). Specifically, the FCM and Canadian Urban Transit Association (CUTA) argued that the federal contribution ought to be raised to one-third (Canada 2015).

Conversely, respect for constitutional jurisdiction and flexibility were reflected in other arguments, suggesting federal programs ought to set broad policy goals and avoid restricting provinces and urban municipalities. In 2012, views supporting flexibility provided by the Gas Tax Fund were articulated by representatives of large municipalities (Canada 2012, 2015). To the SCOTIC, the Canadian Taxpayers' Federation (CTF) espoused federal restraint to avoid "distortion" of transit agency decisions, which could result in overspending and project delays. The CTF also argued that, rather than transferring gas tax funds to Canadian municipalities, the federal government should stop levying GST on fuel altogether, allowing provinces to tax at a higher rate (Canada 2012).

Occupying a "middle ground" between these positions were groups articulating demand for coordinated governance. Some stakeholders felt that long-term operational costs were not adequately addressed among governments in capital funding initiatives (Urban Transportation Task Force 2009). Municipal stakeholders in particular argued that coordination of transit planning and funding among governments ought to occur on a 25-year horizon, with accountability measures attached (for example, five-year program reviews) (Canada 2012). Although many stakeholders called for coordinated strategies, transit stakeholders (for example, CUTA, FCM) argued for a national strategy, while detractors (for example, the CTF, the Canadian Automobile Association) suggested this method would be "overly prescriptive" (Canada 2012).

Finally, public sentiments concerning suburban living vs. transit-oriented development were articulated in the document sample. The Urban Transportation Task Force (2005) argued that fuel-efficiency gains were being outstripped by the "choices Canadians make about location and travel behaviour," shaped largely by the structure of contemporary cities. While preferences for suburban housing remain strong, research by Finance Canada (2011) suggests an aging population could shift demand for transit-oriented urban living.

In sum, with some exceptions, public sentiments have reflected dissatisfaction with historical federal contributions to Canadian transit. While most publics agree that the federal government ought not to dictate spending at the project level, there appears to be growing legitimacy around a number of policy and program innovations for transit funding and delivery, including coordinated governance and policy-making. Table 4 outlines the public sentiments identified in the document sample.


Some broad conclusions from the preceding analysis can be drawn. Chiefly, the policy ideas behind federal engagement in urban transit have been relatively stable from 2002-2017, although federal willingness to engage in transit-supportive programming grew significantly. Examined in historical context, ideas in this era differed significantly from those in the 1980s and 1990s, which featured virtually no direct federal involvement in urban transit funding. In tandem with growing awareness of climate change and the economic impacts of congested roads and insufficient transit services, transit has become a means by which the federal government can assist provinces and municipalities while respecting traditional jurisdictional bounds.

There is also evidence that urban transit has benefited from a "timely" (Cox and Beland 2013) position within Canada's political-economic discourse, as infrastructure deficits and imperatives around sustainability and climate change have ballooned. These themes were particularly evident in relation to the paradigmatic and framing ideas invoked in the document sample--the needs of municipalities coincided with the broad-based policy imperatives imposed by global trends, producing fertile ground for federal-municipal collaboration. This finding echoes the Toronto-specific research conducted by Horak (2012b) on federal engagement in transit funding in the early 2000s.

This study has a number of implications for policy ideas research. First, like previous studies in this vein, it demonstrates that policy ideas are a political currency that shapes policy debates and influences courses of action taken by governments. In particular, high valence ideas, such as urban sustainability, intergovernmental partnership and competitiveness in a globalized world, offer a positive emotional quality that can be used to build political support for policy intervention and justify the allocation of scarce resources. Second, it illustrates that structured content analysis of official documents can reveal insights into the policy ideas that embody the values and rationales behind policy actions. Finally, the study confirms the utility of Campbell's four-part typology of policy ideas, which provides a valuable framework for differentiating between the policy ideas that underpin decisions and actions in a particular field.

It is prudent here to acknowledge the study's limitations. Despite the inclusion of systematic means and theoretical guidance to ensure the reliability, objectivity and validity of this work, it is impossible to completely remove all sources of subjectivity in qualitative content analysis research (Krippendorff 2004; Creswell 2014). Despite the authors' best efforts and an exhaustive list of queried terms and databases, the document scan could have missed relevant documents due to the omission of relevant keywords or databases. However, via the use of systematic, explicit, and uniform sampling guidelines (Kolbe and Burnett 1991) and by including 20 documents in the content sample, it was the researchers' intention to minimize the likelihood of this occurrence.

This study was designed to infer "analytic generalizability," in which observations may be applied only to the specific phenomenon in question, or analogous phenomena (Bhattacherjee 2012). As such, the results of this analysis should not be taken as a definitive or holistic account of the federal government's role in urban transit policy-making. Rather, the unique contribution of this study (namely the content analysis) is its attempt to approximate the federal government's view of its own role in the policy sphere as demonstrated over the period from 2002-2017. The findings provide a baseline against which policy ideas in preceding and future time periods could be fruitfully compared.

William Towns holds a Masters of Environmental Studies in Planning from the School of Planning, University of Waterloo and is a practicing planner in Ontario. Daniel Henstra is Associate Professor, Political Science, University of Waterloo.


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Table 1. Paradigms in Federal Urban Transit Policy, 2002-2017

Definition: high-level cognitive background assumptions
about cause and effect relationships that shape the
range of alternatives policy elites perceive as
feasible and desirable

Policy idea            Description [Federal transit
                       investment ...]

Climate change and     ... contributes to sustainable urban living
sustainability         in a changing climate

Globalization and      ... eases traffic congestion and increases
competitiveness        economic competitiveness of Canadian

Growing                ... supplements declining provincial
infrastructure         investment and low fares

Impacts of             ... supports infrastructure renewal,
economic crises        which provides economic stimulus
                       and job creation

Intergovernmental      ... provides stability, responsiveness, and
partnership            greater equity in transit services across

Differing needs of     ... supports the pressing needs of large
large and mid-sized    cities

Impacts of federal     ... can be combined with other tools to
involvement            support transit providers (e.g.,
                       reduced environmental assessment;
                       public transit tax credit)

Table 2. Programmatic Ideas in Federal
Urban Transit Policy, 2002-2017

Definition: technical and professional ideas that guide
action by prescribing how to solve specific policy problems

Policy idea                   Description

Rising profile of urban and   Urban transit enhances and supports
sustainability issues         sustainable development policy

Capital funding initiatives   Urban transit is a long-term national

Funding conditions            Federal capital funding for urban
                              transit should be conditional on
                              provincial/municipal assumption of
                              operating costs

Improved institutional        Roles and responsibilities for transit
framework                     policy are clarified and appropriate
                              for local contexts

Intergovernmental             Informal intergovernmental
mechanisms                    coordination for urban transit
                              is necessary and desirable

Support for soft              Federal engagement in urban transit
initiatives                   should also involve non-financial
                              policy instruments (e.g., information
                              dissemination; public education)

Table 3. Frames in Federal Urban Transit Policy, 2002-2017

Definition: normative political symbols and concepts used by
policy-makers to generate support for policy proposals and
legitimize policy interventions

Policy idea              Description

Fiscal imbalance and     Federal engagement is required because
need for stability       the cost of urban transit exceeds
                         provincial/municipal fiscal capacity

Risks associated with    Federal engagement required to avoid
the status quo           "detrimental impacts" of traffic
                         congestion and social isolation

Transit investment as    Individuals, households and communi-
a key to economic        ties benefit from economic growth
prosperity               facilitated by transit improvement

Transit investment as    Federal transit investment can position
a tool to combat         Canada as "world leader" in
climate change           low-emission transport

Constitutionality        Federal engagement should be a
of intervention          "partnership" respectful of provincial
                         "jurisdiction and planning priorities"

Variation in             Federal engagement should involve
transit needs            consultation and analysis to ensure
                         variable needs of communities are met

Table 4. Public Sentiments in Federal Urban
Transit Policy, 2002-2017

Definition: normative background assumptions about public
attitudes that constrain the range of alternatives that
policy-makers are likely to perceive as acceptable to
the public

Policy idea                 Description

Attitudes toward user       Public accepts fares for transit use.
fees and taxation           Public sees transit passes as tax
                            deductible expense.

Dissatisfaction with the    Public and stakeholder concern with
fiscal gap and funding      the long-term fiscal viability of urban
criteria                    transit services

Demand for reduced          Public demands reduced traffic
congestion and              congestion and commute times
environmental impacts

Demand for federal          There is public and stakeholder demand
leadership and              for a greater federal presence in urban
programming                 transit funding

Respect for                 Federal engagement should be "flexible"
constitutional              and should not distort provincial/
jurisdiction and            municipal priorities

Demand for coordinated      Federal engagement should be
governance                  formalized to increase stability over
                            time for transit providers

Suburban living vs.         Strong public demand for suburban
transit-oriented            living, but aging population could
development                 mean more support for trains-oriented
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Author:Towns, William; Henstra, Daniel
Publication:Canadian Public Administration
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Mar 1, 2018
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