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Etobicoke Residents Supportive of Resurrected Finch LRT

It isn't just Scarborough that's wrestling with transit development: Finch West is all abuzz about the pros and cons of light rail, too.

Reverend Paul Kang, who opened proceedings at last night's transit meeting.

How might last week’s bombastic transit meeting in Scarborough have differed if it had taken place in a church? We got to consider that idea during another community meeting last night at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Humber Heights. A warm welcome from Reverend Paul Kang and some fun but firm ground rules from moderator Naki Osutei Morris established a respectful tone in the chapel just at Royal York and Dixon Roads. (For instance: Morris, a parishioner and youth group leader, asked the approximately 45 residents in attendance to refrain from applause, unless it was to gently remind the pair of city councillors in attendance that their brief speaking time was up.)

After some introductory remarks, activist Dave Meslin spoke first, calling out combative advocates of both light rail and subways: “The slogans coming out of both camps are actually making things worse.”

Meslin assured residents there was no “disaster” on St. Clair, the right-of-way streetcar only steps from his Davenport home. He was not so quick in dismissing more direct criticisms of LRT cheerleading. “I think it’s fair when [Mayor] Rob Ford and others say ‘all those against subways live downtown and have subways,’” he said.

Meslin was clear that the previous administration of David Miller failed to engage suburban transit riders about local transit improvements, and warned that a persistently disconnected debate “is not going to help anyone. Whatever decision [Toronto city] council makes, it has to be respected.”

Councillors Vincent Crisanti (Ward 1, Etobicoke North) and Anthony Perruzza (Ward 8, York West) were the two councillors present; each took to the mic briefly. Crisanti took a creative line, insisting first that “Etobicoke North doesn’t deserve second best” in the form of a recently restored Finch West LRT, calling subways “the only true option” before launching into endorsement of a third, “interim” option of Bus Rapid Transit along the same route until a plan for subways could be devised.

Crisanti has been pinning his BRT aspirations to Mayor Ford’s now defunct Memorandum of Understanding [PDF] with the provincial government regarding transit development in the city—a document that contains a single line calling for otherwise undefined “enhanced bus service” along Finch between Keele and Humber College.

The Etobicoke councillor insisted BRT is ideal because of the relatively low cost (Crisanti puts it at $43 million) and an average speed of 23 km/h which, Crisanti repeated for emphasis, is higher that the 22 km/h average speed of the future Finch LRT. He seemed unaware that the Finch LRT environmental assessment favoured both light rail and subways over BRT “due to the more appropriate passenger carrying capacities.”

Crisanti told residents that the very same TTC that recommended light rail on Finch was now preparing a report about BRT for that same street, one that would include funding options. “I’ll be pushing for it,” he assured.

Perruzza opened by acknowledging the presence of former Ward 1 councillor Suzan Hall, who Crisanti defeated in 2010. “We lasted four years, Vince,” Perruzza said of his time with Hall on the TTC board during the Miller era, simultaneously jabbing Crisanti over his recent removal from the Commission after just over a year.

The York West councillor positioned himself as both a driver and a lover of subways who nevertheless stands to benefit from the approved Finch LRT. “Buses will get off the street, out of the way of cars,” said Perruzza, adding that the addition of left turn lanes would further improve traffic flow.

Perruzza took care to define the competing transit visions as a win or lose proposition for riders on the 36 Finch West bus route. He challenged the fairness of taking money away from Finch to bury the Eglinton Crosstown LRT, and described Crisanti’s BRT proposal as “a colossal waste of money that would be for a bus route that is already at capacity.”

Attendee comments were generally supportive of the Finch West LRT proposal. A speaker named Mohamed chastised provincial Progressive Conservative leader Tim Hudak for asking provincial lawmakers to ignore city council and support Ford’s subway ambitions. “If that is the case,” said Mohamed, “why [should] we have this discussion?”

Former Liberal MP Borys Wrzesnewskyj questioned the utility of focusing on a certain mode of transit, stating, “I don’t particularly care if we have bus rapid transit or LRT, as long as it gets us where we need to go.” Etobicoke activist and teacher Nigel Bariffe pushed for an LRT with the carrot that “we expect the property value of our neighbourhoods to go up.”

One speaker named Leslie injected concern into the conversation when she stated that if the Finch West LRT proceeds, “a lot of people would lose their homes because of expropriation.” (A 2009 Finch LRT document produced by the TTC and regional transit authority Metrolinx refers to “property impacts” at six intersections along Finch, to accommodate centre-platform stations, and along curves on the route; the LRT track design fits within the current Finch right-of-way.) Councillor Crisanti played to the fear of possible expropriation, promising Leslie he would investigate. An incredulous Meslin used his next speaking opportunity to point out that either expropriations were or were not planned, adding “we should be debating facts.”

When we spoke to Crisanti after the meeting, he defended his expropriation remarks, apparently believing they will extend to property owners along the street in large numbers, and not just to those at station intersections. “It makes no sense to take two lanes away and not expropriate some properties.” he said. On the prospect of residents getting no return for the approximately $15 million already spent on the Finch environmental assessment, he quipped, “let’s not put good money after bad ideas.”

And when presented with TTC stats favouring LRT over enhanced bus service, Crisanti dodged, suggesting the numbers “are all the arguments for a subway, if you think of it logically.”

Photo by Desmond Cole.

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