Things Left Unsaid at Scarborough Transit Forum
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Things Left Unsaid at Scarborough Transit Forum

Residents gathered to learn about Toronto's options for public-transit expansion, but did they hear the whole truth?

Doug Ford, at Monday's transit forum.

Almost 300 enthusiastic supporters cheered on Mayor Rob Ford during an appearance and speech at Monday night’s “Subways Are For Everyone” transit forum at Scarborough Civic Centre. The mayor, Scarborough politicians, and an exclusively pro-subway panel didn’t need to sway the partisan crowd, and didn’t try to address most criticisms of Ford’s unfunded subway vision. Instead, two days ahead of a city council vote that could bring two additional Light Rail Transit lines to the east end, Ford and Co. preached a gospel of half-truths, omissions, and vain imaginings that likely confused the few attendees who came seeking information.

The mayor showed up about 40 minutes into the proceedings, and entered the meeting space to a standing ovation. He promised to keep fighting for subways and called Wednesday’s vote on recommendations for transit on Sheppard Avenue a “do or die” circumstance. “Come hell or high water, we’re getting these subways,” Ford promised amid shouts and cheers.

Ford left no room for negotiation on options for spending billions of provincial dollars on transit in Scarborough. “Compromise to them [LRT supporters] means increase taxes, have user fees, have all this stuff. We can look at all that stuff, but we can’t look at anything until we start building one station at a time.”

Ford called out dissenting councillors Raymond Cho (Ward 42, Scarborough-Rouge River), Glenn de Baeremaeker (Ward 38, Scarborough Centre) and Chin Lee (Ward 41, Scarborough-Rouge River) by name, labelling them “councillors that are in the middle. They say they’re not supporting us.” Ford continued, “there’s no such thing as middle, left, right, or centre. It’s either you’re supporting subways or you’re supporting streetcars, and that’s all these LRTs are, are fancy streetcars, folks.”

Ford estimated that 19 or 20 councillors were planning to vote against a Sheppard LRT, and urged residents to make calls to pressure others to change their minds.

Gordon Chong, Ford’s main subway advisor, played out a series of bizarre exchanges with his co-panelist Jo Kennelly, who served as a consultant during Chong’s recent effort to come up with a viable subway plan. Chong made frequent interjections before Kennelly’s comments, and undermined her professional credentials.

“I got involved in this about a year or so ago, and I was smart enough to hire somebody smarter than I am, Jo Kennelly who is sitting here with me.” Chong said in his opening remarks. He continued without irony, “often, we lose sight of the common sense that we have, and we’re overly deferential to professionals who can then kind of manipulate information and, perhaps, lead us in the wrong direction.”

Later, Chong interrupted before Kennelly could answer a question about different modes of traffic and vehicle flow. “Just remember common sense,” Chong pleaded with attendees. “She is a professional and I want to be deferential to her, but we generally get snowed a lot by professionals nowadays,” Chong warned. “Don’t let go of your own common sense and your own instinct.”

Kennelly seemed happy to simplify her analysis of the local transit dilemma. In one instance, she compared LRT technology to a discounted, used car. After stating that operating costs for LRT are higher than those for subways, Kennelly argued that “by getting something that’s on sale from the province, and purchasing the LRT ’cause it’s on sale at a lower price, you’re actually going to have to pay more to run the thing. So it’s like someone giving you a cheap old car, but you have to pay lot of money in gas to get to work.”

Kennelly also boldly claimed that provincial and federal pension plan bodies have been “clamouring” to invest their money in local opportunities like prospective Toronto subway developments. She would later remark, however, that private sector investors require “an open and transparent process” before stepping forward.

Chong dismissed the LRT recommendation of the Sheppard Avenue panel on which he served, remarking that his colleagues looked at evidence for different transit options “from a very narrow point of view.” City council will consider the panel’s report on Wednesday.

The panel’s composition ensured “a pre-ordained result from the beginning,” Chong said. He urged councillors to ignore the panel’s findings and “make decisions based on what city staff may say, what [consulting firm] KPMG said.”

Chong also tangled up his message when speaking about the projected density required to build subways. He chided pro-LRT councillors for lacking vision and stated, “we should not be looking at what the current density is, looking ten years out or twenty years out. You should be looking 50 to 100 years out.”

Chong continued by reflecting on his youth: “When I was growing up in downtown Toronto… if somebody had said Scarborough and North York were gonna be built up as much as they are now, I wouldn’t have believed it… what I’m saying is no way, no expert has a crystal ball, that can predict that far out.”

Councillor Norm Kelly (Ward 40, Scarborough-Agincourt) boasted he was likely “the only guy in the room who actually voted, as your metro councillor, for the Sheppard subway.”

Kelly was the first to suggest, to applause, that “Scarborough is no longer a suburban community. We are part of an urban core.” He would later argue, however, that the LRT right-of-way would ruin “highway commercial“ zoning along Sheppard Ave that currently allows motorists to turn easily into adjacent driveways. As proof, Kelly cited dealings with a local gas station owner. “When I told him after Mayor Ford won the election, ‘it’s subways’, he was dancing behind the counter,” Kelly informed the audience.

Councillor Peter Milczyn (Ward 5, Etobicoke-Lakeshore) further muddied the conversation by suggesting urban renewal in Scarborough was being “greatly oversold” to residents. I don’t think they’re going to be positive,” he said of streetscape changes that might come about as a result of building a Sheppard LRT. “They might be negative, but I certainly don’t think they’re going to be positive in that regard.”

Milczyn also warned that even an approved Sheppard LRT would be delayed until 2016, but gave no reasons for such a delay.

Milczyn, along with panelist and former TTC planner John Barnes, did challenge the mayor to provide details about funding his subway vision ahead of Wednesday’s vote. Milczyn’s highlighting of transit as a public service that “can’t be fully paid for from the fare box” served as a brief but sobering reminder for the hundreds of Ford fans in attendance.

“We have to pay for it, whether we pay for it through income tax, sales tax, or some other form, we’re going to pay for it,” he said.

Mayor Ford steered clear of the funding issue in his closing remarks, and urged councillors to continue the fight for transit options that still have yet to come before council. “Let’s get these subways approved on Wednesday,” he said. “Be there for sure.”

Photo by Desmond Cole/Torontoist.