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City Council Debates Transit Funding: Anatomy of a Fiasco

Once again, Toronto's public-transit debate has devolved into parochialism and bickering. Here's how it all went down.

At times, it seems like the idea of expanding public transit in Toronto is going nowhere fast  Photo by Alfred Ng, from the Torontoist Flickr Pool

At times, it seems like the idea of expanding public transit in Toronto is going nowhere fast. Photo by Alfred Ng, from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

When it came Frances Nunziata’s (Ward 11, York South Weston) turn to speak, you could see the words floating above her head in all-caps. “ARE WE CRAZY?” she asked. She answered her own question. “Yes, we are.”

This neatly sums up the tenor of the two-day transit debate at City Hall. The back-and-forth on the floor of council was a demonstration of why so little gets done when it comes to public transit expansion, and it was filled with enough facepalm-worthy moments to make your forehead red. There were councillors arguing in favour of reopening established agreements in order to serve parochial interests, proxy fights conducted on behalf of provincial parties, and no clear vision from the mayor’s office to unite council. It was, in a word, predictable.

Here’s a look at how we got here, and the chaos that ensued.

Two days before the April 23 meeting of Mayor Rob Ford’s cabinet-like executive committee, Ford told reporters that he wouldn’t vote to send a report from the city manager, on revenue tools for expanding public transit, to city council for its consideration. City Hall watchers rolled their eyes. It seemed absurd that a politician could come to this view. The city manager’s report represented months of consultation with residents over their preferred ways of funding Metrolinx’s Big Move, and the regional transit agency wanted council’s input before releasing its own recommendation on May 27. If the city didn’t make a recommendation, Metrolinx would go ahead anyway, and the City’s voice wouldn’t be heard on one of the GTA’s most pressing policy dilemmas.

The mayor doesn’t subscribe to Metrolinx’s 25-year, $50 billion transit strategy for the Toronto region. He even made a retching noise when asked by reporters about the prospect of implementing taxes and fees to pay for it. After all, he doesn’t believe in taxing the taxpayer. Despite this, it was a surprise to many at City Hall that the mayor followed through on his offhand comment.

At executive committee, the mayor won a 6-4 vote to defer the report until after Metrolinx issued its recommendations. It was instantly apparent that not discussing transit funding at council was not an option for many councillors. It wasn’t long before the likes of left-wing councillor Adam Vaughan (Ward 20, Trinity-Spadina) and right-wing councillor Karen Stintz (Ward 16, Eglinton-Lawrence) started trying to seize control of the motion.

To do so, they needed supermajority (that is, two-thirds of the councillors present in council chambers at the time of the vote) to support reopening the item for debate. Even so, the Ford opposition seemed confident. Everything was shaping up for another spectacular Ford loss at council, especially after Ford loyalist and executive committee member Gary Crawford (Ward 36, Scarborough Southwest), who had voted to prevent the item from going to council, changed his mind and supported opening up the debate.

Then Glenn De Baeremaeker (Ward 38, Scarborough Centre) happened. The left-wing, bike-riding, Scarborough councillor occupies an odd position at council. He’s frequently a progressive voice, but will often vote otherwise for self-serving ward-specific interests. That is to say, neither council’s left nor its right-wing factions are particularly fond of him.

With the possibility of the revenue-tools debate being reopened at council in the air, De Baeremaeker saw an opportunity for a transit gambit that would deliver a subway to his region, Scarborough. Rather than build a light rail line to Malvern in lieu of the soon-to-be-decommissioned Scarborough RT, why not build a subway for only $500 million more, he argued. That De Baeremaeker’s proposal would be 20 per cent shorter than the planned light rail line, would actually cost $1 billion more, wouldn’t reach Malvern, and would have fewer stops and half as many people within walking distance was all secondary. Scarborough deserves subways, dammit.

More councillors joined the chorus of subways, subways, subways, with Scarborough councillor Michelle Berardinetti saying that she would only vote to debate revenue tools if Scarborough got a higher order of transit.

And so we went to council. By a vote of 27-13, council voted to seize the revenue-tools file from Ford’s executive committee. The vote was very close; had the Ford team stalled for Mike Del Grande (Ward 39, Scarborough-Agincourt) to get back from a doctor’s appointment, they would have won. (Responding to this lapse in strategy, one City Hall staffer said, “Strategy? They couldn’t spell cat if you spotted them the ‘c’ and the ‘t’.”)

All of a sudden, De Baeremaeker’s idea to slap on a different transit line seemed grand to many councillors. So they added their own motions. James Pasternak really likes the idea of a subway on Sheppard Avenue, so he put that forward. Peter Milczyn (Ward 5, Etobicoke-Lakeshore) had his own ideas for the best transit routes. Sarah Doucette (Ward 13, Parkdale-High Park), perhaps to prove a point, asked Milczyn about resurrecting the Jane Street light-rail route. Even Denzil Minnan-Wong (Ward 34, Don Valley East), a world away on a trip to Rome, had a raft of motions introduced on his behalf.

Council had plunged down the rabbit hole, and was more than eager to add squiggles on maps. This was far from the rational, coordinated discussion about transit funding that Metrolinx had requested. In fact, it was up to the most quiet and mushy councillors to remind the room of its responsibilities. Paul Ainslie (Ward 43, Scarborough East) and Josh Matlow (Ward 22, St. Paul’s) argued for sticking with the plan and following through on funding it. Ana Bailao (Ward 18, Davenport) spoke about the economic benefits of alleviating congestion, while the typically soft-spoken Mary-Margaret McMahon (Ward 32, Beaches-East York) expressed righteous indignation, which was refreshing, coming from her. By the time they were all done making pleas for reason Matlow had put together and distributed a fact sheet comparing the Scarborough options, distributing it to media and councillors alike.

But the bright spots were overshadowed by the silliness. Doug Ford falsely claimed light rail costs more than subways. The mayor referred to a dedicated transit fund as a “slush fund.” Giorgio Mammoliti (Ward 7, York West) claimed 80 per cent of people along Finch Avenue don’t pay their transit fares. Anthony Peruzza (Ward 8, York West) and Maria Augimeri (Ward 9, York Centre), carrying the NDP banner for Downsview, dismissed dedicated revenue tools in favour of asking the province to raise corporate taxes. Adam Vaughan jokingly proposed a levy on vinyl labels, which would hurt the Ford family business. Doug Holyday (Ward 3, Etobicoke Centre) clipped his nails on the council floor.

It was chaos, filled with self-serving and short-sighted politics, and it offered confirmation to any cynical viewpoints on City Hall. What was supposed to be a mature conversation about how Toronto must get to the next step in building public transit was, instead, the strongest possible evidence that oversight from Metrolinx is needed.

Even before the voting had started, city councillors had already sent the strongest message they could to Metrolinx and the province: they can’t get their shit in order.


  • Bob But Not Doug

    This. City. Is. FUCKED. I’d move, but all my stuff is here.

    • joe

      I already did move because of the idiocy of this city.

  • Roger Beharry Lall

    and this, kids, is why we can’t have nice things.

  • Cindy

    A lot of people spend more than $1000/year at fucking Tim Horton’s, but apparently we’d rather sit in traffic and burn gas while we choke on smog than pay another cent in taxes.

    You get what you do and don’t pay for, society.

  • ephena

    Well, maybe Metrolinx will pull this one out of their totally incapable hands, and I won’t have to buy a car after all. Hey, it could happen. I can dream, can’t I?

  • Bill H

    Oh this city. The only way we will ever have decent transit is if the province takes full control away. Don’t even ask the council anymore. Just tax people, form a list of stuff to build and go.

    • Dave

      …until someone like Hudak takes over and cancels every transit expansion project on the books “until the budget is balanced and efficiencies are found.” Then we’re fucked again.

      • Lee Zamparo

        Ugh, perish the thought.

  • Randy

    Its time to take transit out of the hands of city councillors, what an absolute shitshow todays session was. It would be funny if it weren’t so pathetic and damaging to the city.

    • Disgusted by the Ford Faction

      It’s time to take COUNCIL out of the hands of most present city councillors!

  • Doug

    Do the city councillors think they looked good today? Do they even care? I hope they realize that having missed their opportunity to provide an opinion to the province they have also given up their chance to steer transit priorities in Toronto. That’ll be up to the province now. God help us all if Hudak gets in. They’ll be filling the hole on Eglinton again and it’ll be another 25 years of gridlock.

  • Patrick_Metzger

    This is what happens in a leadership vacuum. The worst Toronto mayor in modern history, and I only qualify it with “modern” because we’ve had mayors who actually killed people.

    • blearghhh

      I’m not sure that killing someone necessarily makes them worse than Ford. If they were pretty good in other ways, they might still nudge him out.

      • dsmithhfx

        Foes of transit (like Ford) are responsible for hundreds of premature deaths (not to mention billions in medical costs) across this city every year, ranging from pedestrians and cyclists mowed down on our streets, to people literally choking to death on vehicle-generated smog.

    • vampchick21

      We have????? Ok, I need to pay more attention to the history of this city!

    • XXX

      Ford led this debate exactly where he wanted it to go. The city of Toronto will not rubber stamp the provincial taxation scheme of a government that has callously wasted billions in taxpayer cash already.

      • Patrick_Metzger

        The design and implementation of a municipal and regional transportation strategy is vital to the future well-being of the city. Ford’s job as mayor is to provide leadership and to help bring disparate stakeholders together in agreeing on what we’re going to build and how we’re going to pay for it.

        Instead he washes his hands of the whole thing and throws it in the province’s lap for his own short-term political gain. To make things worse, if his past record is any indicator, he’ll also actively obstruct any positive action anyone else tries to take, doing his best to ensure another generation of disastrous, expensive,taxpayer-funded gridlock.

        • XXX

          Which stakeholders is Ford to represent? The ones that were polled in the report from city staff using vague questions like do you support new “revenue tools” for transit? Or the 52% that said “no” to new taxes when they were asked a clear question in a Forum research poll? The people looking to wash their hands in this scenario are the “new” Premier and her team who are looking for any political cover they can find to hide from the gas plant scandal, ehealth scandal, ornge scandal, green energy scandal, I could keep going but you get the idea.

          People point at Ford because he is an easy target and because they don’t want to look in the mirror or examine the political failings of those that they are affiliated with.

          • Testu

            How about doing the responsible adult thing and realizing that while half of the people don’t want to pay for improved transit infrastructure the city still requires it.

            Unless Rob Ford’s vision for the city involves people moving away and businesses closing down there will be more people in transit (private or public) next year than this year. This means that the existing issues with insufficient transit infrastructure will only get worse. Congestion will not improve in any way unless further infrastructure is built. This is not something that is up for interpretation, it is fact.

            Given that fact, infrastructure must be built. Building infrastructure costs money. Always. Every time.

            Regardless of your opinion of what the government spends money on, there is currently no additional money available in the budget for these (absolutely necessary) infrastructure improvements. Thus, we have to find a way to fund these projects.

            This problem doesn’t go away just because you think you pay enough tax already. It exists and will continue to worsen, the mature thing to do is to buck up and deal with it head on.

          • XXX

            That isn’t how our system works. Canada is a democracy and in democracies the people direct the government not vice versa. This may not work for you, you may find your fellow citizens choose suboptimal or even irrational ways to live, nevertheless that is how our country makes decisions. The beauty of democracy is that if you cannot live with the choices that the country makes you can choose to move elsewhere and no one will stop you. Oh, and we don’t need to do anything, there may be ugly consequences to inaction but that does not make action an imperative.

          • Testu

            Thanks, I’m glad to see someone take this belief to its logical conclusion.

            As long as somewhere near half the people don’t want to pay taxes, their representatives should vote against them (taxes, any and all) at every possibly opportunity, regardless of the ugly consequences.

            After all, a representative democracy can’t rely on the knowledge and wisdom of its elected representatives to make unpopular but (apparently) necessary choices to keep the system running. No, they must bend to the will of the (majority) people, no matter how short sighted or self harming the matter.

            Oh wait, that’s a direct democracy. That’s not what we have here in Canada. Probably because it devolves into a bunch of fuck-you-got-mine bickering over weather anyone should have to pay for anything.

          • XXX

            “rely on the knowledge and wisdom of its elected representatives” Knowledge and wisdom? Lol, right. Did you have a straight face when you typed that sentence? I’m fine with direct democracy. Bring it on. Better that then the fuck-I’ll-just-take-yours of the representative democracy fans.

          • Testu

            No, I grimaced a bit when I wrote that. Obviously knowledge and wisdom are in short supply here in T.O., that’s what the article is about after all.

            My point was, we have a representative democracy not a direct democracy. We rely on our politicians to make the occasional unpopular move so that we aren’t all sitting around in gridlock while the infrastructure collapses around us because almost no one wants to pay for it.

            If you want to live without public infrastructure and pay for only what you personally use, there are plenty of places in Ontario you can do that. The largest city in the country is not one of them.

          • XXX

            Testu: I understand and appreciate your point. My point is the representatives we have (aka the Ontario Liberal Party + the TTC & Metrolinx) have not demonstrated the ethical or practical expertise to be entrusted to make this call. The OLP through any number of scandals and wasteful programs and the TTC / Metrolinx through truely abysmal project planning and lacklustre operational skill.

      • tyrannosaurus_rek

        Ford prefers to waste taxpayer cash directly himself, by cancelling contracts and interfering with development plans that have been in the works for years.

      • DGM

        You’re changing the subject, XXX. This is about raising funds for public transit, not about the errors of the McGuinty government. And Ford couldn’t lead starving wolves to bloody meat, much less trick councilors into voting the way he wanted.

      • Still_Waters3

        Ford didn’t “lead” anything here. He deferred, in the mistaken belief that saying and doing nothing is leadership. If he wanted to send a clear message from the City to the province that new taxes weren’t an option for Toronto, then why wasn’t he whipping the vote at Council and at least looking like he was making an effort to organize the motions that were going to be put forward? He couldn’t even control his own allies, let alone his foes. Instead, he leaves the room and leaves it all to fate because he knows that if it goes his way, he can high-five it and claim victory, and if goes against him, he can whine about how the lefties are being mean to him. I’m not sure what that actually is, but it’s not Leadership.

  • GTA MOVE Network

    We can blame Ford all we want but the fact is that our councillors are elected by chance, re-elected by name recognition, and usually stay in council until they leave or are forced out after doing something extremely dumb.

    In order to keep the name recognition going they need to be in the news … and what better way than to be in the news while loudly championing the “needs” or “opinions” of your “constituents” as much as possible.

    What needs to come out of this is a clear message that many councillors are past their “best before” dates and need to be replaced.

    • dsmithhfx

      You can make all the ‘clear messages’ you want, but who is going to notice or act on them?

      • GTA MOVE Network

        Who is going to notice or act? Why not you?

        • dsmithhfx

          You’re preaching to the choir.

  • Phil

    People: write to your councilor. I have no doubt that part of this foolishness is due to the fact that most of the people angry enough to talk to their councilors are those opposed to raising money for transit. We need to remind our representatives that there are people out there who are passionate enough about improving the city that they are willing to pay for it.

    • arahman21

      I would write to my councilor…but my councilor is Doug Holyday. Might as well send it to a homeless person, at least that will have a better chance of being noticed.

  • Jason King

    I am just waiting to finish school in 2014 and I am out of here, had enough of the BS and nothing getting done, spending to much time waiting around for buses and trains to get around this city, I lived in Calgary for a couple of years and their transit system is so much better then ours and it is always expanding

  • hamish

    Yes, it was a bad/sad day – and scant if any were willing to say that cars are given lots of caravy, and the health costs alone from the status quo carap are likely $2B a year.
    Suburbs tended to out-vote core; but core subsidizes suburbs.
    And yes, pushback to both locals and the MPPs on this.
    But new terms came to mind yesterday in the midst of this – “Clowncil” and then the
    “Clowncillors” – and wouldn’t it be great to return to two-year terms?!!

  • MER1978

    I hope everyone has emailed … it’s obviously not his fault alone… but he was and still is a BIG part of the problem.

    • DGM

      Done and done. I also CC’d my own city councilor. I’d also write to Ford, but at this point it would be a waste of time.


    People get all angry now, but I would be amazed if 2 out of 100 people complaining online actually do anything about the situation. The current system is incredibly incumbent-friendly. Combined with the extremely low turnouts in many municipal elections, if people have heard of you (and you haven’t hired a bunny suit with public money), then you’ve basically won. Challengers can campaign their hearts out at election time, while the incumbent basically hits the snooze button, safe in the knowledge that no-one’s heard of the challenger. Column inches equals name recognition. Hence everyone in the room is looking after their backs first.

  • dgbx

    Great analysis, the city deserves the politicians it elects.

  • Sarah Thomson

    We can’t give up and my worry is hat the province will mimic the city and back out at the last minute – we have to hav leadership

    • Testu

      Who’s giving up?

      If you’re doing something on this front*, feel free to let us know.

      *Note: I mean actually doing something, not symposia ad nauseam. If you have a concrete plan with actionable goals, it would be great to hear about it.