The bitter city council debate over the Scarborough subway extension was long on resentment and short on logic. What’s worse, as election season gears up, the transit battle is far from being over.
Last Tuesday, reporters gathered, once again, outside Mayor Rob Ford’s office at City Hall, waiting, once again, to ask him about a troubling police matter. Alessandro Lisi, Ford’s friend and sometimes driver, had been arrested and charged with drug trafficking, and police leaks suggested the mayor himself had been under investigation for eight months. Once again, the mayor’s brother, councillor Doug Ford, seemed to suggest it was a Toronto Star plot (though the news had also been reported independently in the Toronto Sun and The Globe and Mail).
The mayor appeared, led through the glass doors of his office and past the throng of journalists towards the elevator. Jackson Proskow, a reporter from Global News, shouted a question: “Mr. Mayor, are you under investigation by Toronto police?” Ford ignored it and continued walking. But as he reached the elevator, he let out a cry that got louder with each word. “Subways. Subways! SUBWAYS!”
“That sounded evil,” one reporter said.
“Well, I’ve earned my keep for the day,” Proskow said, preparing to upload the sound clip to Twitter, where it would go viral and draw attention from international news outlets.
The crowd shifted gears, heading up to the chamber, where, once again, councillors would spend the day debating the mayor’s favourite topic: whether to build additional subway stations or a light rail transit line on one route in Scarborough. It was the third such major debate of the year and felt like the 400 millionth of the Ford years at City Hall.
As you likely know, the debate ended with council choosing to scrap its existing agreement to build a LRT route and instead construct an underground extension of the Bloor-Danforth subway line. Councillors also voted to fund the extension by phasing in a 1.6 per cent property tax increase that, over the next 30 years, will help pay the city’s $910-million share of the bill. Mayor Ford was elated, shouting “Yes!” and pumping his fist after the 24-20 vote.
There are a number of reasons why I, and many others who have followed this issue, think this decision amounts to a billion-dollar boondoggle (for a comparison of the two plans, see the sidebar below). But choosing the more expensive, less effective transit option was not even the most depressing part of last week’s council debate. Instead, a few other hallmarks of Ford’s leadership emerged to dominate the discussion: the proud repetition of blatant lies, the stirring up of tribal resentments, and the narrow focus on a single issue without proper consideration of the bigger picture. The whole broken debate over transit technology is emblematic of how the council under Mayor Ford has come to treat the city as a set of warring factions—neighbourhoods and classes and narrowly sliced interest groups pitted against each other in a zero-sum game for a pool of increasingly limited resources. The idea of Toronto as a home we all share, and the reality that individual parts of the city cannot succeed at the expense of the whole, is shouted down, tossed under the subway in favour of electoral jockeying. This is no way to run a transit system. Or a city.
Despite some partisan allegiances, the polarization of council is not a left-right split, or anything as intelligible as that. As demonstrated in the LRT-subway debate, the sides are divided into those committed to city-building based on logic and reason versus those devoted to inciting spite and playing on long-simmering resentments. During the discussion, LRT supporters mainly conveyed evidence or outlined scenarios supported by confirmable facts. Joe Mihevc, a former subway advocate, said that his backing hinged on the province contributing $1.8 billion and the federal government about $800 million—“I can go this far, and no more.” Since those conditions hadn’t been met, as council insisted in July they must be, he could no longer support the subway.
Paul Ainslie, a Scarborough councillor who voted for the subway plan in July, but supported LRT this month, said he looked at the math and thought the subway would eventually expose his community to a property tax hike of as much 5 per cent, which he could not defend. (The mayor was apoplectic at Ainslie’s reversal; Ford has since been making robocalls in Ainslie’s ward to tell residents their councillor “led the charge” against subways for Scarborough.)
Meanwhile, Josh Matlow, who has beaten the LRT drums as loudly as anyone, reminded council that the TTC says a different subway extension, the so-called Downtown Relief Line, is more desperately needed.
The subway advocates, however, framed the discussion differently: They repeated patently false information and relied on emotional appeals to paint the subway extension as a symbolic, billion-dollar reward for long-suffering residents of the city’s east end. Doug Ford claimed the Scarborough LRT would snarl traffic running in the middle of the road. (It would not. The plan was to have the LRT line run in a separate off-road corridor.) Budget Chief Frank DiGiorgio got confused under questioning about his own financial amendment (“I may have misunderstood what I said,” he explained). He then refused to justify his ultimate vote. He boiled his logic down to this: “I just happen to believe in subways. That’s the way it is.”
These proponents repeatedly dragged out the ridiculous claim that subways last 100 years and LRTs only 30 (or, in one case, 10). Deputy Mayor Norm Kelly even argued that this position was “visionary” rather than the work of “a bean counter.” The truth, which is not hard to uncover, is that subway cars last about 30 years, as do LRT vehicles. Tracks for both require refurbishment after about 30 to 50 years (which is one reason why parts of the Yonge subway line will shut down next year for track replacement). Subway signal systems need to be renewed every few decades (which is why the Yonge-University line was shuttered downtown over Thanksgiving weekend).
The only part of the subway system that lasts a century is the tunnel, which subways alone require. (The Scarborough LRT’s proposed off-road right-of-way could conceivably last even longer—witness the grade-separated CP and CN railroad corridors that still run through the city today, many of them built in the late 1800s.) These facts about longevity were established early on, but Team Subway kept repeating their fictions.
But then, the pro-subway argument was never about facts. It was about resentment. Glenn De Baeremaeker, the Scarborough environmentalist and erstwhile LRT advocate, admitted on CBC Radio in the weeks leading up to the debate that he needed to back the subway extension to get re-elected. In council chamber, however, he said he changed his position because a quarter of the city’s population had only three subway stops, and they deserved more. He also claimed (falsely, for the most part) that Scarborough residents covered the cost of downtown subway stations, and now it was their turn.
The underlying sentiment of the pro-subway side was best summed up by Giorgio Mammoliti. He called the extension a “victory for the suburbs”—as if the primary objective of burying a billion dollars under McCowan Avenue was to stick it to spoiled downtowners.
Regional resentment-stirring, pitting one set of residents against another in an angry crusade that ignores the city’s actual needs: This subway debate is the centrepiece of Ford’s approach to governing as a constant wedge-issue campaign. A discussion about the best—the most efficient and effective—way to expand transit services in one area of Scarborough became, by the design of the Ford team, a very different sort of referendum. Instead of rationally assessing the relative worth of both the LRT and subway options, the question became, Are these people worth it?
This is crazy. All people across Toronto are worth the best services we can deliver to them. But which services can be delivered, given our pool of resources, cannot be discussed in a vacuum. Because people, wherever they live, don’t exist in a vacuum. Home-owners in Scarborough work downtown; residents in North York visit the Beaches; folks in Etobicoke shop at the Scarborough Town Centre; and sports fans from all over the GTA watch the Blue Jays play in the same stadium. The city is a network of neighbourhoods, and the way we connect those neighbourhoods should be a response to the needs of the city as a whole.
That concept is easily forgotten, though. For instance, later last week Mayor Ford said of the Downtown Relief Line, “Downtown people already have enough subways”—which is pure, distilled idiocy. The DRL would run from Don Mills, probably down Pape Avenue, into the city core, with the purpose of taking riders off the at-capacity Yonge line, which is used by people coming from North York and Scarborough and other points north and east. The proposed line isn’t needed primarily to serve people who live downtown—it is needed to serve people trying to get downtown.
What’s more, a discussion about transit should focus not on one technology or another, but on developing the entire network: which bus service can be improved, how GO Train lines can move people better, whether streetcars can travel faster in right-of-ways or dedicated lanes, and how all these modes of transportation work together. The old Transit City plan was an attempt to start thinking that way. The province’s creation of regional transit authority Metrolinx in 2006, and its Big Move plan, was a similar effort, itemizing $50 billion worth of work and listing projects in order of bang-for-bucks and their effect on region-wide priorities.
But that sensible, big-picture decision-making gets lost when small parts of the network and of the city are isolated and made the subject of provincial by-elections, federal funding announcements, and city-wide debates. During that entire day of debate at city council, for example, very few people asked what a billion dollars could otherwise be spent on. Increased subway-style service on the GO Train lines that serve north Scarborough? LRT lines into Kingston-Galloway and Malvern? A subway extension out to Sherway Gardens, or up into North Etobicoke?
Or what about Toronto’s non-transit priorities? The repair backlog at Toronto Community Housing is $751 million. More than 85,000 households are on the waiting list for subsidized housing. A city assessment released in July counted over 5,200 homeless people in Toronto. And last week, city council lamented the July floods, seemingly oblivious to the fact, until councillor Janet Davis pointed it out, that funding for the Wet Weather Flow Master Plan, which builds sewer infrastructure to prevent flooding, was cut by $1.1 billion in this year’s budget.
So when we decide to spend a billion dollars on construction of three new subway stops instead of accepting the possibly-as-good, possibly-better LRT alternative that would require no city money, we’ve also decided not to invest in these other kinds of needs. (Mayor Ford has repeatedly cited the repair backlog at TCHC as one of his biggest priorities.) This demonstrates the impoverishment of the aren’t-they-worth-it style of debate. Aren’t people waiting for transit in other parts of the city worth it? Aren’t people who need affordable housing worth it? Aren’t those who had their homes flooded due to inadequate disaster planning worth it? Those questions went unanswered—and mostly unasked—at the Scarborough subway shout-off.
If this is how we’re going to debate every element of building our growing city, we’re in trouble. What’s worse is that the battle over LRTs and subway extensions isn’t even over. Within minutes of the final vote last week, Mayor Ford told the press that he now planned to stop the LRT routes ready for construction on Sheppard East and Finch West. He said converting those projects into subways will form the main plank in his re-election campaign next year.
Meanwhile, Metrolinx said that it intends to go ahead and build the Sheppard and Finch LRTs, but made it clear that it would be bound to respect the wishes of voters. Provincial Transportation Minister Glen Murray said various options would be considered—of course, he and his government will likely face an election in the spring, one they might lose to a party with very different transit plans and priorities.
Once again, the city’s long overdue transit needs will be subjected to the whims of election campaigns—and they will likely continue to exemplify all that’s currently wrong with our political discussion in Toronto. Is there a chance that a candidate will emerge to present a coherent big-picture plan to steer the conversation in a more productive direction? Could we actually have a proper debate? It seems unlikely. But I suppose as long as we’re all still talking about it, anything is possible.