Illustration by Matthew Daley/Torontoist.
On Tuesday, Ontario Infrastructure Minister Bob Chiarelli gave a press conference to brag about government accomplishments in this area over the last eight years. Now online, the update exudes the cheery self-congratulation of a Soviet-era propaganda newsreel (“Already shovels are in the ground and plans in the works for even more projects that are going to make a meaningful difference in the lives of Ontarians…”), as if ruling party MPs had dug into Gucci wallets and personally funded schools and hospitals instead of using taxpayer money to perform the functions of a government.
At the press conference, however, Chiarelli waxed defensive, saying that the Ontario government can’t be blamed for worsening gridlock in Toronto. This he attributed to late-in-the-game changes to the transit plan made by the Ford administration, which would add a year or more to the build time for new transit lines.
The context for this exercise in preemptive deflection is that part of the largesse for which Torontonians are expected to be grateful is funding for transit projects—specifically the long-planned Spadina subway extension to Vaughan, and the more recent Eglinton LRT line, which will run underground from from Black Creek Drive to Kennedy Station, and then above ground to Scarborough Town Centre.
The Eglinton underground, of course, constitutes the eviscerated remains of former mayor David Miller’s Transit City plan. Last spring current mayor Rob Ford decreed that only motorists should see the light of day and that future rapid transit, including Eglinton, would be banished underground. Subways are a lot more expensive than above-ground transport, and suddenly the $8.2 billion committed by the province didn’t go as far, and neither would our new rail lines. With no new provincial money available, 17 kilometres of LRT along Finch West and 14 kilometres along Sheppard East would be sacrificed in favour of burying the bulk of the Eglinton line under the streets where it wouldn’t inconvenience motorists. (Ford has said that Sheppard will be funded by public-private partnerships, but as of this writing no private sector interests have publicly stepped up to the plate.)
But is it really fair for Chiarelli to point the finger at the mayor for keeping us all in our cars even longer? Firstly, the Liberals had already started tapping the brakes by delaying $4 billion in transit funding back when Transit City was still the plan of choice, pleading deficit reduction. And sure, it was Rob Ford who took the axe to Transit City, but when you give the baby a blowtorch you shouldn’t be surprised if the house burns down. With Liberal fingers on the purse strings, the McGuinty government had a chance to push back on the revised plan, on the premise that any new transit deal should at least undergo the same degree of study and analysis as Transit City before the cash started flowing and the big boring machines lumbered out of Nathan Phillips Square. Instead, after a short negotiation, the Liberals threw up their hands and handed the keys to the Family Truckster over to Rob and Doug Ford to drive wherever they wanted, which wasn’t to Transit City.
In the interests of objectivity, we’ll say that time could prove Ford right. Future transit riders may sing his praises as they’re whisked across town in subterranean luxury while motorists exercise their God-given right to race through city streets unimpeded by ugly, inconvenient commuter rail.
More likely however, beyond the longer time to completion for Ford’s miracle subways, we’ll see massive dissatisfaction from areas like Finch West, whose residents lost the transit lotto and will be packing themselves onto overcrowded buses for another generation or more. More likely, moving to subways will have a trivial impact on the deteriorating traffic situation, as it provides vastly less bang for the buck and takes fewer cars off the road per dollar spent than light rail.
And with regard to Bob Chiarelli’s “we didn’t do it” speech, in 10 years—when blame is being apportioned for our ongoing road mess—it won’t just be Rob Ford at whom we’ll point with our wizened steering wheel carpal tunnel fingers while wheezing curses from CO2-addled lungs. The McGuinty Liberals seem happy to duck accountability for whatever might prove controversial in Ontario cities under the guise of allowing municipalities to make their own decisions, even as the province Hoovers up the tax money that would actually permit cities to operate independently. The Ontario government’s passive-aggressive complicity in the whole transit debacle doesn’t look good on them.