How the Left Has Been Letting Rob Ford Win on Transit
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How the Left Has Been Letting Rob Ford Win on Transit

Why are we still fighting about something evidence has made clear all along?

Green: Full subway; 8 kilometers, 7 stations

Requires additional $1.7–$2.7 billion in funding

Purple: Full LRT; 13 kilometers, 25 stations

Requires no additional funding

Blue: Hybrid; 13 kilometers, 2 subway and 24 LRT stations

(darker blue=subway, lighter blue = LRT)

Requires additional $0.5-$0.8 billion in funding

(Red: Current Sheppard subway and planned Scarborough RT —> LRT conversion)

Today the blue ribbon panel charged with examining various transit options for Sheppard released its findings. Their recommendation—to build light rail rather than a subway or subway/LRT combo—is in no way surprising.

What is remarkable about the report: it puts the lie to something that almost everyone, of every political stripe, from every part of the city, has been saying since before Rob Ford got elected—that it would, indeed, be great to have subways, if only we could afford them.

Popular though that sentiment is, that simply isn’t true.

The panel’s report is invaluable in that it collects facts that we’ve had circulating for a while, marshals them into a clear set of comparisons, and evaluates their differences based on a key set of considerations—not just funding or ridership or economic growth, but all of those things at once—to produce a total estimation of the benefits of each of the three options under consideration. The verdict is decisive: LRT by a wide margin.

But it isn’t just a conditional, given-the-funding-constraints-that-limit-us approval. No, the panel found that even if you take finances out of the picture entirely, LRT is still a better choice for Sheppard.

Professional debaters will tell you that one of the biggest mistakes you can make in a dispute is to concede your opponent’s premise. What today’s report makes clear is just how much Karen Stintz, most of her allies on council—including many staunch left-leaning councillors—and many more transit advocates outside City Hall have made precisely this blunder.

The effects have been incredibly damaging.

Every time a councillor or transit advocate says, “Of course we’d like to build subways if we could, but we can’t afford them and we do have money for this other pretty good thing,” they license Scarborough residents to say precisely what many of them have been saying: that subways are the best transit choice, and that they are getting stuck with second best because we decided not to spend the money on them. That they are less respected, less valuable, less essential to Toronto than other parts of the city that do have subways.

Scarborough residents who feel that way are not getting that idea out of nowhere. They did not make it up. We, all of us, who repeat the “subways would be great if only…” routine have been validating it every single day of this transit debate. When councillors say “I’ll vote for a subway plan, Rob Ford, if only you can show me how you’ll pay for it,” they are really saying “subways would be best if only we could sort out the money problem.”

But that is just false. Even if we had all the money in the world, LRT is still a better choice for Scarborough. It will provide better connections to the rest of the city, serve Scarborough internally much better, offer rapid transit to a great many more riders, and spur street-level development at a manageable scale. It’s not that LRT is cheaper, though it is—it will do more good. Even if you prescind from the cost, even if you ignore the opportunities that would be lost by shunting funding from other parts of the city to Sheppard. Straight up, LRT is better.

Though he’s lost many transit votes on the floor of council, Ford has won a very important rhetorical battle, and he won it without a fight. He said subways are inherently, intrinsically better, and almost everyone, on all sides of the debate, has let that go unchallenged.

There have been a few voices advocating for light rail on its own merits, even absent funding considerations. Former TTC Chief General Manager Gary Webster was one—and he got fired for his pains. Former centre-right Scarborough councillor (and budget chief under David Miller) David Soknacki has written fiercely on the subject. Current councillor and TTC board member John Parker (who previously served as a Tory MPP under Mike Harris) has been using his Twitter feed to trumpet the economic development that flows from street-level transit.

These voices have been few and far too rare. Too many people who care about transit in Toronto, who want to see it developed based on the best available research and evidence, have just conceded Ford’s basic premise throughout this entire debate. Perhaps they did so out of a desire to be conciliatory—after all, earlier this year Stintz offered Ford a compromise that included the hybrid subway/LRT option for Sheppard. (It was a compromise Ford rejected.) But the effect has been to make a debate that should have been, could have been, largely sane and rational and fact-oriented, utterly, perhaps ruinously ideological and divisive.

Next week, city council will hold a special meeting to debate today’s report, and endorse one of the transit options for Sheppard. At this point it seems the Stintz coalition is likely to eke out a victory, though the vote is looking far less certain than with previous decisions. Even if the evidence-based light rail option wins, it will be against the wishes of a great many Scarborough residents. They will be much less inclined to welcome that transit, they will be less forgiving of the delays construction will require, and they will be less patient if the newly opened line experiences—as almost all new infrastructure does—some glitches in its first weeks and months. They may turf some councillors out of office. Even if everything goes as smoothly as possible from this point forward, the sour taste in everyone’s mouth will last for years to come.

There is a great deal of resentment and anger in Toronto, especially in Scarborough, over the transit file, and much of it is unnecessary. Ford and his allies on council bear the lion’s share of the blame for that: they came into office dead set on subways, and dead opposed to the funding tools we need to pay for subways, creating an impossible dream for their supporters who were conned into believing they could have a great advancement at negligible cost. But just about everyone who is interested in sane, reasoned transit planning is complicit, by letting Ford’s mindless devotion to subways set the tone for our public conversation on the matter.

Ford isn’t interested in evidence, and he isn’t interested in improving transit for the greatest number of Torontonians. He certainly isn’t interested in building bridges amongst communities within Toronto and developing a more unified, integrated city. If he had his druthers we’d leave all of Scarborough east of McCowan Road without any form of rapid transit at all, and we’d pay for it by leaving residents on Finch also without any form of rapid transit. He has lost many battles in the transit fights thus far, and there is good reason to believe he will lose the final one next week. But Ford has—because everyone else has let him—won a key element of this debate, and we are an angrier and more divided city for it.

The full report on Sheppard is online [PDF]. It will be debated by city council on Wednesday, March 21.