"What are you, thick?"—TTC advisor Gordon Chong, to TTC Chair Karen Stintz, at a tense meeting last night.
Had they not been so passionate and vocal, the over-200 residents at last night’s public transit forum at Scarborough Civic Centre might have been mistaken with fans at a Leafs home game.
Jeers, curses, and objections flowed from the packed, subway-boosting crowd inside the former Scarborough council chamber, and from spectators watching the raucous panel discussion on a broadcast in the lobby. Newly reaffirmed TTC Chair Karen Stintz (Ward 16, Eglinton–Lawrence) was the main target of scorn, thanks to her support for light rail on Sheppard and Eglinton, as well as the planned upgrade of the Scarborough RT.
Councillor Glenn De Baeremaeker (Ward 38, Scarborough-Centre) was similarly shunned. Toronto Sun columnist Sue Ann Levy elicited rolling cheers with her condemnations of “glorified streetcars” and former mayor David Miller. She offered the audience a not-so-subtle invitation to clarify their objections.
“I get the impression in this room, and you can tell me if I’m wrong, that you’d prefer to have nothing as opposed to streetcars,” said Levy. “You would prefer that the Eglinton Crosstown ended at Laird. That you can continue to drive down your street without an impediment in the middle,” she continued to hoots and loud applause.
During a tense and startling moment, Toronto Taxpayers Coalition president Matthew McGuire, who organized and moderated the event, called for security when an agitated participant grabbed a volunteer and yanked her hand aggressively.
Stintz was booed from her introduction onwards, and was scarcely able to finish a remark without widespread protest. She absorbed the incessant attacks, sometimes with annoyed smiles and laughter that one resident characterized as “joking around.” The TTC Chair handled the barrage without returning in kind, emphasizing instead that “we don’t have the money for subways, but we do have money for an LRT.”
Dr. Gordon Chong, Rob Ford’s appointee on a prospective Sheppard subway, defended his suggestions that private interests could partner with the city to finance one or many new subway lines.
“Is the private sector blowing smoke?” Chong asked. “Are they really BS-ing us? Or are they really gonna come in and bid? There’s only one way you’re going to find out, and that is you complete the business plan, do the RFP, and then you’ll find out for sure.”
Chong tempered his “yes we can” enthusiasm for subways with some criticisms of the Ford administration, including the mayor’s reluctance to consider revenue tools like taxes or roads tolls.
Although the panel discussion, which also included former city manager John Morand, was billed as a debate, McGuire did little to frame the conversation or clarify the panelists’ statements. Said Morand of propsed LRTs at grade: “The current plan is stupid.” On raising funds for new subway lines, Morand opined that “if you want to take a step towards partial funding, think about a casino.” (The provincial government, which regulates casinos in Ontario, has already ruled this out.)
Many of the attendees we chatted with said they were frequent TTC riders, yet they consistently argued that the status quo of buses in Scarborough was better than proposed LRT lines.
Ian Hancock, a Scarborough resident who studies at Humber College and relies on transit for the daunting commute, argued that “the long-term benefits of a subway outweigh any benefits of an LRT.” Hancock described gridlock along Finch Avenue West as “a tough situation” for transit riders. He added that “if it comes to a small new tax [to fund subways], so be it.”
Yasmin, who observed the melee through a window outside of the chamber, said of councillors who approved LRT plans: “They don’t care about us.” She expressed firm support for the Ford vision. “I love him [Ford] with all my heart. Him and his brother [councillor Doug Ford].”
When we asked Yasmin if council should take funds from other transit projects in order to build transit below grade in the east end, she disagreed, saying the city should “divide whatever we have, be fair to everybody.” She had faith that Ford could keep his promise of privately funded transit. “Of course he’ll find a way.”
Widespread mistrust of city council, the newly installed TTC commission, TTC management, and the city’s transit union figured heavily in the LRT backlash. Chong was clear from the outset, “I do not trust the TTC numbers,” referring to staff figures that suggest Chong’s report underestimates the cost of building a subway on Sheppard Avenue. “It’s for years that I haven’t trusted them.”
Levy piled on that the TTC is “mismanaged, inefficient, and I wouldn’t trust them to run a hen party.”
McGuire asked security to remove a man he accused of grabbing a volunteer who was keeping track of the speaker’s list. “Hey, hey! Let go of her! Did you just grab her?” McGuire shouted from the moderator’s seat before hailing security. An argument ensued, with McGuire yelling into the microphone, “Are you going to stand here in front of the cameras and call me a liar, in front of 200 people?”
People standing near the man claimed he only grabbed the speaker’s list, and some advised him to settle down. The participant was allowed to stay after security entered the chamber, but the confrontation only fuelled the crowd’s frenzy.
When Stintz stepped into the lobby to address the media, some residents rushed up to the media scrum and shouted angrily while several police officers and private security guards stood close by.
Residents repeatedly shouted down suggestions from Stintz and De Baeremaeker that LRTs could reduce congestion, boost ridership, improve service, and provide the most value given existing provincial funding.
Ahead of the meeting, some attendees of Sunday’s transit meeting in Malvern had expressed misgivings to us about showing up to the mainly pro-Ford event. As the smoke cleared late Thursday night, a composed McGuire suggested he was “extremely disappointed” with the evening’s divisive tone.
Joyce Kerr, a rare subway skeptic among audience questioners, asked the panellists to detail the plan for financing subways. “Subways are nice, but I’m concerned with cost. Let’s say you build only subways: where are you getting the money from?” Stintz answered that the only option was to raise taxes.
Kerr made a point of shouting above the hecklers, “I have come to this meeting, and I’m leaving more confused than when I came in,” before exiting the chamber.
We originally reported that an agitated meeting participant intimidated a volunteer. We have since confirmed that the situation was more serious, as there was physical grabbing of her hand.