There’s good reason to be excited about the OneCity transit proposal—but more as a starting point for what could be rather than a definite plan of what should be.
Let’s get OneThing straight: as breathtaking as that map is—that glorious criss-crossing tangle of imagined subway lines, streetcar routes, light-rail and bus rapid-transit corridors—and as much as the map itself makes one want to weep with joy at what could be, the OneCity transit plan is not primarily valuable as a plan. As plans go, this brainchild of TTC chair Karen Stintz and vice-chair Glenn De Baeremaeker has a lot of red flags: It was stitched together on a rapid timeline, developed behind closed doors, and it raises as many questions as it answers. (Is there really a ridership case for a Sheppard West subway expansion? Can we really count on the federal government to chip in more than $10 billion? Are property taxes really the best tool for raising the municipal share of funding?) We can’t just approve this and get shovels in the ground next month to make the city reflect that map, and we wouldn’t want to. OneCity is not the end point of anything.
OneCity is the start of a conversation and, in that respect, it is among the best city-building developments to happen in Toronto in a long time. Many of us thought that the approved revival of David Miller’s LRT plan in the spring put an end not only to Mayor Rob Ford’s recklessly expensive and impractical replacement plan, but also put an end to major transit discussion in Toronto for the foreseeable future. If it had just been that, it would still have been a win, or at least a draw, for the the city’s transportation future. But it left the real heavy lifting—of addressing the kind of growth in TTC development that Toronto needs—for some future, undefined date years, perhaps many years, in the future.
Instead, the settling of that old Transit City argument set the stage for us to have a new conversation. A conversation about what we’re going to do next, over the next generation, to give this booming, growing metropolis a mass transit system that can meet its needs. It’s not a shooting script—instead it’s a brilliant first draft. And as a conversation opener—the beginning of a process rather than the end of one—this draft has almost every element you’d want it to have.
To be sure, this plan’s unveiling continues a political plotline at Toronto City Hall concerning the continued alienation and marginalization of the mayor. Last week, I asked how council would handle the question of leadership and city-building now that it had relieved Rob Ford of those responsibilities—and OneCity is a pretty sharp answer to that question, one that demonstrates the ad hoc–committee model of leadership that’s been developed over a year as a reaction to proposals can also, to a stunning degree, adapt itself in the affirmative, creating proposals to build the city every bit as effectively. Working individually, Don Peat of the Toronto Sun, John McGrath of OpenFile, and David Rider of the Toronto Star have painted a fascinating picture of how this plan was developed and its implementation prepared—in a way that gives it as many as 30 of council’s 44 council votes in its first stage—by a cross-partisan group of former political foes, behind the mayor’s back, and without their work becoming known in advance.
Ford and his team have missed an opportunity to embrace this plan and put themselves back into the governing discussion, but the councillors behind this plan are showing that governing can continue to take place no matter how many lines in the sand Ford draws. I’ll write more about that soon. But the transit discussion implications are more important, and even more interesting, than the political developments.
OneCity is, very importantly, in its name, its components, and its map-making, a plan that encompasses the entire city. As we’ve so often seen in amalgamated Toronto recently, a proposal to build this or that project can quickly devolve into a squabble based on regional rivalries that have defined our political discussion over the past few years: the inner suburbs versus the downtown. This plan encompasses the whole city and puts new rapid transit routes into almost every ward. It’s a comprehensive collective wish list that ties the whole city together—as it would do physically if it was built, it does now phsychologically as a plan. All our chips are down together on that map.
And it sidesteps the whole crazy is-LRT-better-than-subways digression that has produced so much trumped-up stridency in our debate this past year. The draft plan includes surface rail and underground rail and busways and undefined transit running in existing railroad corridors. The answer to the subways-or-LRT question was always “it depends,” and this plan bakes that sensible answer into the discussion from the start by including virtually every method of transportation we’ll want to use (except maybe ferry boats along the waterfront—the ghost of Giambrone perhaps making those a leap too far).
As transit advocate Steve Munro says in a really good summary of informed observations over at Torontoist, in this plan “most of the schemes and pet projects of past decades are loaded onto one map.” That gets everyone into the conversation, and includes all the various ideas that various councillors and activist groups champion, with their various positives and negatives, in that conversation. In a separate post at his own blog, Munro adds a caveat: The plan could “fall victim to the dreaded problem of all maps—once you draw them, it’s almost impossible to change them.” If you show me a map of a planned subway to my front door and then later erase that subway, I feel like I’ve lost something. There is indeed a danger in having the participants in this conversation get too attached to any one element of the plan. But, that potential obstacle aside, as a means of getting all of us to have a stake in the conversation, this ambitious something-for-everyone approach still goes along way.
And it makes sure the conversation will include the billion-dollar elephant that so often stands in the room unmentioned when we start blue-skying our transit dreams: funding. The Stintz/De Baeremaeker proposal will cost $30 billion and it proposes to raise a little under a third of that through a property-tax scheme. The convoluted method they propose should be examined—it may or may not be the best way to raise that money—but it is a concrete statement of a necessary truth: If you want to really build transit in this town (and look at the map, you know you want to), you need to start talking about paying up.
Next page: Will the province and the feds get behind OneCity to the tune of $10 billion each?