Light-rail proponents were thrilled by Wednesday's transit vote, but the path forward is far from clear.
This week’s historic vote to resurrect parts of the Transit City network is unprecedented in the history of the relationship between the Toronto Transit Commission and city council. Never before has a sitting TTC chair challenged and defeated a mayor on a major transit-policy issue.
Light-rail transit (LRT) supporters may have partied into the night, but the question for the days ahead is: What now?
Mayor Ford and his team categorically reject the council vote as “irrelevant” and expect Premier Dalton McGuinty to continue building subways as if nothing happened. Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure Bob Chiarelli held a press conference yesterday, less than 24 hours after the vote, to convey a different message: “I’ve always respected the role of council as a whole to exercise their authority,” he said, adding that transit projects are of necessity a partnership—there can be no unilateral deciders. And then, this entreaty: “Leave your politics at the door.… Further prolonged debate borders on being irresponsible.” At the Canadian Club the same day, Premier McGuinty reiterated that message.
That hardly sounds like an endorsement of subways.
TTC chair and city councillor Karen Stintz may be the heroine of the moment, leading the charge against Team Ford, but will she and her coalition stay the course? What tasks lie ahead?
Why Don’t People Understand LRT?
A frequent complaint about all of Toronto’s transit plans—but especially about former mayor David Miller’s Transit City—is that people do not understand what the plan will actually do. This was complicated by the fact that Torontonians did not understand what “LRT” was all about. Any new plan based on light rail faces the same obstacles. Council, the TTC, and Metrolinx must redouble their efforts at selling the “new” plan, and do this convincingly. That will require honesty about the effects, positive and negative, of each aspect of the plan.
Metrolinx and the TTC are known for their “good news” public styles—for telling only the stories that make people happy, rather than those they need to hear. Both agencies shield professional staff from criticism of plans that are insensitive to local concerns instead of bringing those matters to open debate. If citizens cannot believe that their views are heard and that a project’s design is the best, even if unpalatable, choice, then both the project and its advocates lose all credibility.
Toronto currently lacks a true LRT line, which would be the best demonstration of what LRT does and how it works. When making the case for LRT, agencies must instead choose examples that reflect environments comparable to proposed sites such as Eglinton, Sheppard, or Finch, rather than “beauty shots” of grassed light-rail boulevards in the hearts of European cities. These images don’t properly capture our own future.
The plan must be sold on both a regional and a local level. Residents must be able to envision what will happen in each neighbourhood. They must understand how transit will be improved for major groups of riders along a route. And we collectively need to talk more about how embracing LRT as a new mode of transit for Toronto will prepare the city for transit growth in the 2020s and beyond.
Scarborough Is Not “Screwed”
Stintz’s opponents waged a disinformation campaign throughout council’s meeting, and the biggest lie was the claim that Scarborough was “being screwed again” by the new transit plan. Let’s look at what was really on the table.
The Sheppard LRT:
The original Transit City plan had the Sheppard LRT run from Don Mills Station east to beyond Morningside, with possible extensions east to Meadowvale, northeast to the Zoo, and south to the University of Toronto Scarborough (UTSC) campus. Mayor Ford’s plan would extend the Sheppard subway east to Kennedy and then southeast only to the Scarborough Town Centre. The new proposal puts all of the options for Sheppard back on the table for detailed study and comparison.
The Scarborough RT:
According to initial plans, the Scarborough RT was to be refurbished and extended northeast to Malvern Centre. In the plan’s 2009 revision, this was cut back to Sheppard, and the technology was changed to LRT; the Malvern extension remained on the books as a future project.
The Scarborough-Malvern LRT:
The Scarborough-Malvern line, another of Transit City’s original routes, would have run east from Kennedy Station via Eglinton and Kingston Road to Morningside and then north to Sheppard. It was a lower-priority project, and it never had provincial funding. It is not part of any current plan, but remains on the books with a completed environmental assessment. Part of this line, from Sheppard south to UTSC, could be built as a spur from the Sheppard LRT to provide a direct link from the UTSC campus to Don Mills Station.
The Eglinton LRT:
In Transit City, the Eglinton LRT would have run on the surface from Victoria Park east to Kennedy, and would then dive underground to enter Kennedy Station for an easy connection both to the subway, the revised SRT, and the bus station. This was updated in 2009 to through-route Eglinton with the SRT.
In Ford’s campaign plan, there was only a Sheppard subway, but no route on Eglinton. In the subsequent Ford/Metrolinx plan, Eglinton reappeared and would be underground all the way, but with fewer stops than the surface alternative. We are now back to a surface Eglinton line in Scarborough through-routed to the SRT.
If Scarborough has been “screwed,” it is by the gradual disappearance of routes from its transit map long before the current vote. If the panel of experts commissioned by council recommends something akin to the original LRT proposal, then Scarborough will get far more new transit than the Ford plan, with its Town Centre terminus, would ever provide.
The money released from the Eglinton project can go to build a Finch LRT west from Keele (the future Finch West Station on the Spadina subway) to Humber College. Until yesterday’s debate, all that Finch seemed likely to get was “improved bus service” with more vehicles, a few “express” signs, and maybe some paint on the roadway. A more extensive scheme with stations, signal priority, and properly reserved bus lanes would be cheaper than the LRT line, but would have less capacity for growth to meet expected demand—and nobody advocating for bus-based improvements mentioned the question of lost road space.
Eglinton itself will have a technology that can be extended west to Pearson Intentional Airport, where the line could share a station with an extended Finch LRT. This won’t happen until the 2020s, but shows the flexibility at moderate cost that a surface LRT network can provide. This does not preclude tunnels with light rail or full subways, where the demand or the local conditions warrant.
Will council, the TTC, and Metrolinx seize this challenge of showing what can be built, with a vision for the future that is tempered by the reality of what Toronto and Ontario can afford?
Events at the TTC show that the Ford Faction does not respect the will of council. Last month, millions allocated by council for service restoration were scooped with the connivance of Chair Stintz to fund a Wheel-Trans budget shortfall; Stintz herself used a smokescreen of legal nuance to thwart council’s desire in that case. A real transit advocate would have been at council to demand proper funding of transit for the disabled, rather than pitting regular service against Wheel-Trans cuts.
Will Stintz now pursue restored funding for TTC service, or will she continue to lecture about “sustainable” spending and ignore options for a revised TTC budget? Will she persist in claims that TTC vehicles have room to spare, and that riders should sacrifice what comfort they might have to the greater good of the Ford budget cuts?
Will the Ford-dominated TTC even acknowledge council’s firm position on the LRT network, or will it attempt to continue with the subway-only plan? Metrolinx pays the bills, and working on a plan with no official support would leave the TTC holding the tab.
Will council replace the existing TTC board with a new, better-balanced group? Doug Ford thinks a coming review of TTC governance will be a chance to flush out the organization, but he forgets that council controls the vote, and council appoints the chair.
Will council set the terms for crafting the city’s budget and direct the city manager to follow its dictates, not the mayor’s, for 2013?
Will council, if necessary, use its powers to change City bylaws and strip powers from Mayor Ford, including his ability to appoint the standing committee chairs, and thus to control the executive committee, the gateway to council’s agenda?
Mayor Ford may think that council’s vote is “irrelevant,” but it is he who risks fading to a shadow with council taking the lead on all votes that matter.
Running an opposition government in Toronto won’t be easy: we don’t have a party system to provide order, and there’s an abundance of ambitious potential leaders on council. But it must be done if this week’s transit vote is to be more than a passing victory.