BY EDWARD KEENAN
I am not pleased about the results of yesterday’s transit vote. The debate itself might have been the most disgusting spectacle I’ve witnessed at City Hall, and the decision itself seems likely only to ensure we keep having this same debate for the rest of the year, and probably for most of next year’s election campaign, too. But I’ve already written plenty about that, and Ivor Tossel at Maclean’s and John Lorinc at Spacing have done an excellent job of summing up how stupid the debate was and how potentially disastrous.
Here’s Ivor on the stupid:
So here we are, having gone from a plan that was locked in and paid for, to a plan that we don’t know how to pay for even if we cancel other projects and put ourselves deep in debt, which still might not get built, which the mayor doesn’t totally understand, which we don’t need in the first place because Scarborough was going to get brand-new, top-rate transit anyway. Hooray!
And here’s John on the dangerous:
…the cozy blanket of consensus that now envelopes the city’s neglected eastern suburb may set in motion a series of unintended consequences that could threaten the future of the Finch and Sheppard LRTs, return Rob Ford to office, delay the [insert euphemism here] Relief Line, and imperil the Metrolinx investment strategy. Oh yes, and this: I’d say there’s a decent chance that the Scarborough RT won’t be replaced anytime soon, either by a subway or an LRT.
Of course, the biggest downside is that people in Scarborough get to wait again for better transit that may never come.
But the dark, storming, lightning-bolt-hurling cloud that council summoned over the city is not without its silver linings. Or silverish linings. Possibly aluminum foil linings. Still, shiny! Here’s to looking on the bright side:
1. Rob Ford is the first mayor of amalgamated Toronto to commit to raising taxes to fund transit.
DAVID RIDER/TORONTO STAR
Rob Ford’s motion both called for an increase in development charges along the area to be served by the new subway extension, and also levied property taxes to pay for part of the city’s share:
Committing to a property tax increase over three years, dedicated to funding a Scarborough Subway, in an amount between 1.1% and 2.4% (depending upon the amount of funding received through Recommendations 2(2)(a) and (c)), on the residential property class, and 1/3 of such a rate increase on the non-residential property classes (in accordance with current City policy), starting with a minimum tax rate increase in 2014 of 0.5% on the residential property class, together with the corresponding 1/3 rate increase on the non-residential property classes, with the balance of the residential and non-residential three year rate increase to be phased-in in the years 2015 and 2016.
This is not a small thing. David Miller did raise taxes, and so, finally, did Mel Lastman. But neither of them, as far as I can recall, ever proposed raising taxes to pay for the transit projects Toronto needed or wanted—the tradition in this city is to insist the provincial and federal governments should pick up the tab. (One hundred per cent of the Miller Transit City plan was to be funded by the province, and the parts that are being built are still being funded by the province.) As recently as a few months ago, city council refused to explicitly endorse any “revenue tools” to pay for transit expansion. Rob Ford has been the King of We-Should-Not-Have-To-Pay-For-It-Ourselves-Ville—the loudest single proponent of the opinion that people are overtaxed and that we can have better luxury services while cutting taxes. He will likely continue to insist on things like that, but yesterday he led council to approve a tax increase to fund the kind of transit a majority of council voted that they wanted to have. Again, it was not a big enough tax increase, and the plan still calls for the province and feds to kick in approximately a jillion dollars, which is unlikely to happen, but still: That is a major milestone in this city’s history.
2. Rob Ford’s complete ignorance of what he was talking about was once again thoroughly exposed.
It is not good to have a mayor who makes multi-billion-dollar decisions based on a complete lack of understanding of the very basic nature of what he’s talking about. It is less good when a majority of our elected officials rally to support him in that blind decision-making process. But if that is the kind of mayor we have, and the way council is going to react to that mayor, it is good to at least have it clearly demonstrated on video so everyone can know how things are working at City Hall. (I reported as plainly as I could on this phenomenon during the mayor’s baffling testimony in his conflict-of-interest trial, but there was no video—which is apparently the standard of proof required these days to guard against malicious reporting by journalists.)
3. This will certainly delay construction of some transit, but it’s not certain to ruin everything.
Maybe this is the smallest of small blessings but, for a while this week, it looked like approving this line could spell the end of the Sheppard LRT. That would mean we would have traded the seven stops of the Scarborough LRT and the 25 or so stops of the Sheppard LRT for the three stops of a subway extension that may never be built. That would have been a bad, bad, trade. Very bad. (Trading the Scarborough LRT for the subway extension might be like trading Jarome Iginla for Joe Nieuwendyk, but throwing in the Sheppard LRT would be a trade-off of Sundin-for-Clark proportions.) But everyone including the mayor has sworn up and down that the federal dollars for Sheppard are inviolable, and a motion by Joe Mihevc that passed seeks to ensure no funding from the other LRT projects can be spent on this. Anything could happen, but the death of Sheppard—by far the more important project—is not assured, or even likely. Which is a relief.
4. It is possible to make the subway plan better.
In the unlikely event that the funding for a subway extension does come through from the province and the feds, we’d still be left with only three new stops in Scarborough, and the bulk of the traffic would just be going to and from the Scarborough Town Centre. But as Transit Sense Toronto points out (with the map above), the crazy tunnel route goes along Eglinton and then up McCowan, with no stop planned there. But just a block east at Bellamy would actually be a good place for a stop, as there’s a GO Train station there connecting out to Pickering and points east and down to Union, and there are a few highrise towers and townhouse developments there at Bellamy and McCowan that could use a mass transit station within walking distance. It’s even close enough to Markham and Eglinton, where there’s another cluster of highrise towers, to be a 15-minute walk. With a good feeder bus system and decent all-day, two-way GO Service this could become a major transit hub, with fairly dense (by Scarborough standards) residential population and open boulevards ripe for commercial revitalization or redevelopment. One hopes, too, that it might also be possible to extend the eastern end of the line to Centennial College at Markham and Progress and terminate near Markham and Sheppard at the edge of Malvern, as was the plan with LRT. I’m not at all sure the plan will be made better, but if we do wind up building a subway, it’s not hard to see where some tweaks to the route would make it a more vital part of Scarborough’s transportation network.
5. The people of Scarborough feel respected.
Ford Fest in Scarborough last month. Photo: Lucas Oleniuk/Toronto Star
I think—as someone who lived in Scarborough without a driver’s license for most of my life between the ages of 14 and 28, and as someone whose parents currently live in a four-adult, one-car household in the middle of Glenn De Baeremaeker’s ward—that the LRT plan would serve Scarborough residents better than the current subway-extension plan. But the message councillors seem to have been receiving that has them running into Ford’s arms is that the majority of people in Scarborough are not convinced that LRT will serve them better. They want a subway. Cynical politicians who ought to know better keep telling them they “deserve” a subway. This was a major theme of Karen Stintz’s speech at the end of yesterday’s session: that many of us thought the debate was over and the LRT plans had won, but that the constituents who would be served by that transit felt they’d been given the shaft, that LRT is a second-rate technology.
This is very clearly, I think, a communication failure. People have been misled about what LRT is—even into this week by Mayor Ford (who seems himself not to understand) and candidate Doug Holyday—assuming it means something like the King Streetcar or the St. Clair right-of-way. They still want a subway. This is regrettable. But the fact is that, in a democracy, the desires of the public cannot be treated as irrelevant. We’ve been debating this forever, but if a majority of people affected think the conclusion is unsatisfactory, the debate will continue whether you like it or not. So it continues—for the moment, subway advocates in Scarborough can certainly feel that their desires are being listened to, which is what all the cowardly politicians care about. In the longer term, it means we still need to keep having this debate about transit for a long time yet, which means there’s a passing chance people will come to understand what the options really are.
If, like me, you think LRT is objectively better suited to this route, and especially so given the money involved that can be used for other things to serve people even better, then the time is here to continue making that case, and making it more persuasively. If, as expected, the funding for this scheme falls through and we have an opportunity to go back to the original plan, council will have the chance to discuss why that plan is still a great option—indeed, a better one. (We run the high risk here, I think, of making people more bitter—saying “YOU GET A SUBWAY” and then snatching it back from them because of a lack of money, reinforcing the perception that the LRT is second-rate, the consolation prize for those not worth spending money on. I’m not sure how to avoid that risk. Stintz and Ford are perhaps banking on being able to blame the higher levels of government, but I’m not sure how that will work out for them.) Either way, it is necessary for those looking to lead in this city to do the work of persuading people and educating them and selling their vision, rather than just changing their vision to confirm people’s ignorance or, worse, feeding that ignorance through shameless pandering that comes with a high price in both dollars and the quality of people’s daily lives.
6. There’s a good chance we still wind up with the original plan anyway.
"You want us to pay what???"—Glen Murray. Photo: Carlos Osorio/Toronto Star
There were a lot of wildly optimistic assumptions about federal and provincial funding built into the Ford motion, and even more were added to it during the voting process. The upshot is that the instructions now say that unless the provincial government contributes $1.8 billion and the federal government contributes another $500 million (at least), then the new plan is off and the old agreement stays in place. Today, provincial transportation minister Glen Murray has already said the province’s contribution will be $1.4 billion—which is about $400 million short of what the subway proponents were counting on. It’s seems highly unlikely that the federal government will kick in nearly a billion dollars to make up the difference. Now, there’s a chance that, in the absence of funding, the whole things falls apart in a protracted screaming match about who should be paying what and we drag out the quest to get someone to pay for years, and then we wind up with no subway and no LRT. But there’s also a chance that this September, when the deadline in yesterday’s motion to secure funding passes, we just go back to the original plan. And there’s a chance Metrolinx just says, “Okay,” and gets to work. I wouldn’t bet a lot of money on that outcome, but there’s a chance. Which is better than the alternatives. And maybe reason enough to not lose hope after yesterday’s vote and the debacle that led to it.